As borders closed in Australia due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so did the usual flow of international students. International education contributes $40 billion to the wider economy – which was twice as much as in 2015. It also affected jobs in the sector with a loss of over 35,000 academic and professional staff.

So, what happened to the sector during the pandemic, and are international students back? Has the sector recovered or is there a long way to go? Savvy investigates the numbers.

Wipeout: the decimation of international students during the pandemic

In February-March 2020, the Australian Commonwealth Government halted all incoming flights from China and eventually the rest of the world to combat the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

This meant the usually robust influx of international students ground to a halt. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics via Statista, in March 2020, Australia welcomed 61,880 international students on temporary student visas. In April, only 300 arrived.

In February 2019, around the time when university and TAFE courses are about to commence, 191,500 international students arrived on Australian campuses.

Throughout 2020, the growth in international students dipped by 9% and a further 17% in 2021.

According to the Department of Education, Skills, and Employment, numbers fell from the twenty-year peak of 756,636 international students in 2019 to just 557,836 students by the end of 2021 – representing a drop of 26%. This bucked a trend of an average of 9.4% growth streak from 2013 to 2019.

Are international students coming back to Australia?

Yes – but still not up to the record levels we’ve seen.

More than 56,000 international students arrived in Australia since November 2021 bringing the total to about 440,129 as of March 2022.

According to the ABC, “the university sector has warned the export income from overseas students has halved to $22 billion in two years, and it will be a long time before numbers return to pre-pandemic levels.”

Where are international students coming from?

In 2019, the bulk of international students came from China, with 211,975. In distant second was India, with 115,082, This was followed by Nepal (53,526), Brazil (27,339), and Vietnam (26,003.)

As of March 2022, the top three remains the same – China on top spot with 127,094 students, India with 72,642 students, and Nepal with 38,946 students.

However, the subsequent three have changed somewhat with Vietnam now in fourth place with 17,069, Indonesia with 12,632, and Malaysia with 12,416.

Some countries have dropped off the scale entirely, such as the United States of America. In 2019 we had 11,972 in Australia, whereas in 2022 we’ve only seen 2,676 US students, according to the DESE.

Note: A student can be counted across multiple years if their period of study spans two or more years.

How long will it take for international students to come back fully?

At this point, it’s hard to say when international students will come back to previous record levels – if they will at all.

As Australia dragged its feet on opening up borders, international students opted for other countries to study, such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.

The surge in November was spurred on by the Australian Government’s decision to have their visa application fees refunded if they arrived between 19 January 2022 and 20 March 2022.

Speaking to the ABC, Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson called the numbers “promising” – “Before COVID, there were about 400,000 international students, since COVID it’s been about 300,000. So, we’ve got some numbers to make up.”

Savvy CEO Bill Tsouvalas says that we’ve felt the impact of low international student numbers in retail and hospitality, where jobs are going begging.

“The national employment rate is four percent, which is fantastic, but it also exposes our reliance on international students and temporary workers – if you’ve seen signs for ‘staff wanted’ at local cafes, bars, or restaurants, those brief shortfalls are usually filled by students and seasonal workers.

“International students can now demand better conditions and wages in retail and hospitality. It may also be incentive to study retail and hospitality as a pathway to permanent employment and permanent residency, which some international students will be more than interested in if they build social networks while they study.”

More support is required to attract international students back in Australia, such as increasing the 20 hour per week limit on work, further visa fee waivers, and rebuilding the reputation of Australia after stories of students paying full fees despite being locked out of the country for over two years.

“The way we have treated some international students who have already paid their way is appalling, and a PR blitz needs to happen to repair our reputation as a premier destination for education once again,” Tsouvalas says.