International students vital

22 May 2020 | 5 mins

This opinion piece by UWA Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander was published in The West Australian on Thursday 22 May and is reprinted with the newspaper’s permission.

Like many sectors in WA, our universities are in crisis. But while so many others have received government help, we have received none and there is not yet any clear pathway to recovery.

International education is one of WA’s great economic success stories. It is a huge employer in this State, has a substantial multiplier effect, and is sustainable. Universities are not selling finite resources like iron ore and LNG — we are selling something that can be with us long after they have gone.

WA’s international students bring in $2 billion annually to the State’s export income and directly support 10,000 full-time West Australian jobs. The benefits of international education are shared by all of us. International students are active participants in our economy while they’re here — renting accommodation, eating at restaurants, going on holidays, helping their family members to visit them, supporting WA tourism.

Like the good citizens they are, they pay tax on the same terms and at the same rates as everybody else. The students who come here from abroad are invariably the best and brightest from their home communities, keen to experience life in Western Australia. They add immeasurably to our cultural life — both on and off-campus. They love Perth; they are excited by what this remarkable State has to offer. Many choose to become citizens, the greatest compliment of all.

The tuition fees international students pay to WA universities help finance WA’s world-class scientific research, which itself supports economic innovation and the productivity gains that flow from that. Their fees are a vital contribution to scientific research that has placed two WA universities in the top five in the world for mineral and mining engineering.

UWA has also been ranked in the top ten for clinical medicine, the top 15 for marine and ocean engineering, and the top 20 for agricultural sciences and environmental science.

The success of WA’s international education sector is all the more remarkable, given that Perth is not as well-known internationally as Sydney and Melbourne and cannot compete with their advertising budgets. The students who do decide to study in Perth become our State’s ambassadors in their home countries. It’s common to see younger siblings, nephews and nieces, sons and daughters studying in Perth because of the personal recommendations of those who have experienced our warmth, friendliness and hospitality.

International education was one of the first Australian industries to be hit by the COVID-19 global pandemic. Travel restrictions prevented large numbers of students from arriving to begin their studies. The missed opportunity for young people to travel here to begin study in second semester represents a further blow to WA’s international education and to the State’s economy.

The WA Government is rightly proud of being at the forefront of opening up the economy again, as quickly and safely as possible. But there is one glaring omission. All other states have announced discrete support packages for university students who have lost work, but aren’t eligible for JobKeeper (including a $45 million package in Victoria, and a $20 million package in NSW). In WA, the universities themselves are bearing the cost of this charitable assistance, despite our dire financial situation. Staff in danger of losing their own jobs have been giving money they cannot spare to buy food for their students.

In the face of Commonwealth leaders telling those who have fallen on hard times to “go home”, when that is in many cases quite impossible, we need to send an unambiguous signal from WA that international students are welcome here. We must reopen this industry, as soon as it is safe to do so — just as we are doing with all other sectors of the economy. In the face of fewer international flights, we could send freight-laden planes to transit hubs in Asia, for them to return full of eager students. Unlike tourists, who would baulk at spending half of a month-long holiday in quarantine, our students are here for several years and would have no objection to spending a fortnight isolating on Rottnest Island before commencing their studies — and doing so for as many years as are required.

At the very least, our first priority should be to safely welcome those students who paid to study here, but must Zoom in to classes from their home countries because they have not yet been able to join us.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced a plan this week to fast-track the return of their international students. The Victorian Government has been leading the charge on reopening international education in its State, because it knows that to do so will give its universities a competitive advantage over us. Indeed, Victoria has just announced a $350 million package to support their universities and TAFEs through these hard times and swiftly get them back on their feet — including payroll tax deferrals, capital investments and research funding.

For every student WA loses to Melbourne or Sydney, we also lose a chance at welcoming their friends and family members. For every student we lose, WA businesses lose, our entire community loses. We need to plan for the safe reopening of our State. We want to see AFL in Perth, and we want to see the students who contribute so much back among us. It’s essential for our collective future.

Media references

Simone Hewett

UWA Media and PR Manager

08 6488 3229 / 0432 637 716

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