International students locked out of Australia by pandemic switch to UK and US
Sabid Hossain and his three friends knew what university they were going to. They had been planning it, he says, since he was in eighth or ninth grade. At the end of 2020, they would graduate from their high school in Rangpur in Bangladesh.
Sabid Hossain and his three friends knew what university they were going to. They had been planning it, he says, since he was in eighth or ninth grade.
At the end of 2020, they would graduate from their high school in Rangpur in Bangladesh. They would go – all four of them – to the University of Melbourne, more than 9,000km away.
It was the obvious choice for Hossain and his friends Durjoy, Fardin and Auntik. For years, it had been the most popular overseas destination for students at their school.
“We weren’t looking at other cities,” he tells Guardian Australia. “Just Melbourne. We had a huge community in Melbourne at our school. We have a lot of friends who did study in Melbourne. My cousin, he went to Uni Melb and I really wanted to go there.”
Hossain, 18, is a softly spoken teenager who plans to study information technology.
“I was planning to go to Australia for years,” he says. “When I was in eighth grade, ninth grade I was planning to apply to Australia. At the time I didn’t look at other countries at all.”
But as Australia’s borders remain closed to international students, Hossain and his friends are among an increasing number of students opting for Canada, the UK or the US rather than Australia.
Monika Shen, a Chinese student looking to study Tesol (teaching English to speakers of other languages), is in the same boat.
She visited Australia in 2017 and loved it, and had planned to apply to the University of Melbourne in March 2020. She delayed that until July 2020, then until January 2021, and then again. If the borders do not open before July 2021, she says she will apply to the UK.
Many international students are studying online, and some Australian universities are offering discounts for students who enrol and study first from their home countries, while waiting to come to Australia when borders open.
Australia’s education minister, Alan Tudge, recently said it would be “very difficult” for significant numbers of students to return to Australia in 2021.
Meanwhile, the borders to Canada, the UK, the US and Ireland are largely open – even as coronavirus cases are far higher than Australia’s.
For Shen, online won’t cut it. Because she is studying a language degree, she says the whole point is to live in Australia, have classes on campus and learn through immersion.
“I want to speak the language with native speakers,” she says. “The most important thing for me to study abroad is the language, not the diploma. Although they also have online courses in UK, at least we can arrive in the UK – so as for me, I can try and communicate with the English people. It is better for me than the online course from home.”
Even Hossain, who has dreamed of Australia since he was 14, has thrown in the towel. He and his friends are splitting up.
“Now I have applied to the UK, one of us is going to Canada, one is undecided and one hasn’t changed the decision,” he says. “He is set to start classes in July [in Australia] using distance learning and he’s waiting for the border to reopen.”
Hossain says he has seen the mood shift – among students and also among the education agents who sell education packages to different countries.
“I’m not sure about the whole of Bangladesh, but in our city, Australia is the most popular country that we go to … [But] I have a friend from another city [who] is going to fly to the UK with me. I have seen students shifting away from Australia.
“I have heard from agencies, I am not exactly sure why they are pushing, but basically all around, the word of mouth is don’t go to Australia right now, choose Canada, choose USA, whatever you do, don’t choose Australia.”
Ravi Singh, the managing director of Global Reach, a company which promotes Australian universities in India and south Asia, says he has noticed the change in demand.
“Each year we organise open days or exhibitions across the region … We have noticed that the registrations for the most recent series of open days (just concluded in India, Nepal and Bangladesh) is about 50% lower to a similar event that we had organised six months ago.
“As a contrast, Global Reach has doubled enquiries for UK and Canada. Even though we are recognised in the market as an Australian education specialist, the interest even amongst our pipeline students seem to be changing for the destinations that are open: UK, Canada and US.
“We are not managing to complete the conversion, or recruit the students … Australia and New Zealand are considered closed or fortresses.”
Hossain says he understands why Australia has strict border controls, and has “done really great with the pandemic”, but students like him can’t wait another year.
“My own brother was planning to go to Sydney in June or July last year,” he says. “We were waiting both, me and my brother, and suddenly he decided to go to London. It was a split second decision, in a month he went to London..
“I was really stuck on Uni Melb. [But now] I have a flight to the UK already, I have offers … My big factor is my brother went there.”
Like Hossain, Shen also has her heart set on Australia. She studied a subject over summer school for a few weeks at the University of Queensland, and loved it.
“If I am able to go to Australia before July, I will still choose to study in Australia, I love the weather and the environment,” she says.
Singh has called on the government to open the borders to international students, who he says are willing to go through quarantine, and provide an economic benefit to the country over three or four years.
But Shen says that after hopes were dashed in March 2020, July 2020 and January 2021, many students have decided not to take their chances with Australia.
“I have some friends – a boy who is the same age as me, he just got an unconditional offer from the University of Queensland, and he is prepared to switch to Canada. His major is computer science … There are some compulsory courses to be started in Australia, so if he can’t arrive this year, he has to delay his graduation.
“I have heard that for design or engineering, they have to do the experiments [in person], so they can’t arrive in Australia, so they can’t finish their degrees. Some of them have to switch to another country in order to graduate a soon as possible rather than endless waiting.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010