Australia—Proposed pilot plans may support education exports

Small and phased programs that allow for the safe return of international students to Australia would support the education sector that, like tourism, has suffered disproportionately from international travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Education exports fell to $31.7 billion in 2020 from $40.3 billion in 2019. According to Australia’s 2021-22 Federal budget and pilot plans, announced by some state governments in consultation with health authorities, international students could start to return from late 2021 and gradually increase in 2022.

The gradual return of international students would help mitigate declines in new student enrolments and commencements as existing students finish their courses and depart Australia. International student enrolments fell 17% to 552,000 in the first three months of 2021 compared to 663,000 in January-March 2020, while commencements declined 31% to 124,000 over the same period (Chart). International student numbers proved resilient through the pandemic in 2020, in large part because students who were already in Australia likely chose to remain in the country. The take-up of online study also rose in 2020.

Ongoing economic weakness in India, Nepal, Brazil and Colombia in 2021 (all in Australia’s top ten education export markets) will likely weigh on demand for Australian education, even if international travel restrictions ease. On the positive side, following a sharp decline since 2019, there are some signs of stabilisation in Chinese student numbers (Australia’s top education export market). Of the nearly 31,000 international students who began a course between July and November 2020, 48% were from China.

Fig 2 International Student Enrolments And Commencements