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Studying in Australia in the times of the COVID-19

Studying in Australia in the times of the COVID-19

Australia has risen over the years as a favorite destination for Indian students wanting to pursue higher education. Starting in the early years of the new millennium, Australia rose up the ranks of International education destinations and last year over a hundred thousand students from India enrolled in various colleges and universities in Australia. Indian students are behind only Chinese students in the number of International students studying in Australia. And also a significant portion of 7 Billion dollar revenues that the overseas education industry in Australia earns is from the Indian sub-continent.

The Australian education system is semester based and the main intakes are at the start of the two semesters viz., in July/August and January of every year. However, Australia is unique in the number of intakes with multiple intakes happening through the year mainly in October/ November and March too. Under the aegis of this article, we shall endeavor to examine how the COVID-19 virus has impacted the student intake for the future as also how the students presently enrolled in various universities are faring during the shutdown.

Students across India have not taken the final exams of the various courses they are enrolled in. Usually, April is when they would have been taking the exams. But with the lockdown extended till the 3rd May 2020 and likely to get extended till the first week of June 2020 for educational institutions, one is not able to say with any degree of certainty as when the exams will be held. Though the process for admissions for the July intake for Australian Universities extends up to May end, the uncertainty over the exams, results, visa, travel restrictions etc makes the starting of the July 2020 intake a highly doubtful one.

The COVID 19 situation seems to be under control in Australia compared to most other developed nations. They seem to have been quick in placing travel restrictions and avoided widespread community transmission of the virus. As part of the process to minimize community transmission, all the universities in Australia have asked students to stay indoors and attend online classes. Several of the universities have come out with statements saying that they will not award fail grades or hold examinations for this semester. Rather, the students will be assessed based on various criteria.

While this is on the academic front, on the economic front, significant impacts have applied to the broader Australian economy. Commercial restrictions are in place for all residents in Australia with only essential services open for public consumption. International students, like most Australian residents, have been hit to a certain extent as they may be unable to work and earn their monthly expenses. There was some consternation amongst the Indian student community on the reported statement of the Australian Prime Minister Mr Scott Morrision that “Those International students who cannot support themselves may have to find a way to go to their countries”.

Coming at a time when the pandemic was raging both in India and Australia and all flights between the two countries had been suspended, besides being insensitive, it also led to a number of students and their parents in India worry about their future. However, to the credit of the Australian Universities and the Civic administration of several cities, they were quick to reach out to the international students and offer assistance to any student who was in financial distress. The author personally spoke with a few Indian students and found them to be in good spirits. Ms Divya Tadi, a student of the University of Sydney, is doing Masters in Telecommunications said that Australia has done good job of controlling the virus and expects things to be normal by the end of July 2020.

Another student Mighty Sushanth Dodla who is doing Masters in Social Work from the James Cook University was all praise for the support James Cook University had been giving to International students. The university was providing free food products and essentials like toothpaste, soaps etc. on a fortnightly basis to the students. Akhil Eaga who has joined the Master of Information Technology course in the University of Western Sydney has a slightly different story to tell. While the students are being given help in the form of food supply packages and financial hardship grants, some of his friends who have joined Masters programs in Mechanical, Chemical, Biology and other degrees which require a lot of physical presence in the labs are unable to do so and are finding it difficult to adjust to online mode of learning. A few of them have cancelled their admissions and are planning to return to India at the first opportune time.

The overall feeling after talking to a number of students is that the universities have been quite supportive and responsive to the concerns and needs of the International students and Indian students have been coping well with the lockdown situation in Australia. Resultantly, given the situation, many universities are going ahead with the admission process for July 2020 but with conditions attached. For ex. The University of Adelaide have expressed the hope that if travel restrictions are lifted and international travel becomes more acceptable, they hope to see students in the campus. However they have also stated that if international travel restrictions are in place students can avail of online classes for the first semester. The Australia Consulate in New Delhi is closed till the lockdown period ends and hence no visas are being processed. It is highly likely that even after the lockdown period ends the Australia Consulate will be very cautious in granting visas till the health situation in India returns to some level of normalcy.

What remains unclear is will the student be deemed to have gotten admission into a program of study, if commencing through an on-line program, even if a visa has not been granted? Yes says Marcel Creed, Vice President of Global Study Partners, a digital student recruitment platform based out of Sydney in Australia. He quotes the example of Swinburne University which clearly states that students can commence studies online in their home countries and can come to Australia once the situation changes and students will be granted full credits for units successfully completed online. A valid visa at that time is of course necessary to enter Australia. A few other universities like James Cook University and University of Queensland are examining alternate dates for the start of the second semester viz., the July 2020 intake. The situation is being monitored closely by both universities and students alike and it is likely that there might be a considerable delay in the start of the July 2020 intake.

While Australia is one of the few developed countries that has managed the COVID 19 pandemic well, the economy of the country has taken a considerable hit. For the first time after almost three decades of continuous growth the economy has recorded a contraction and economists forecast further shrinkage in the current quarter. However, the Australian economy is expected to rebound quickly and be back on its feet in 2021. But one can definitely expect that Australia will take a long and hard look at its trade dependence on China and India is definitely going to be a winner in the bargain. A sharp drop in the number of International students from China is expected and here again Indian students as students from other Asian countries like Vietnam, Hong Kong etc will also be encouraged.

It is expected that though there will be some hiccups for the second semester admissions viz., July 2020 intake, by the end of the year we might see the number of students going to Australia picking up at a rapid pace. The only concern of course is the kind of health requirements that might be put in place in the post COVID 19 era. We shall have to wait for those to be notified. 

Finally, students of Indian origin are going to be sought after worldwide post this pandemic period given the expected sharp drop in the number of students from China. While students do make their choice of destination based on various factors, one factor that is likely to play a significant role in the post COVID 19 era is how students of Indian origin were treated during the times of this crisis. Politicians will do well to bear this in mind while making any statement regarding the status of international students. After all, International students are adding a lot to the financial well being of the universities in Australia and to the economy of Australia too.

K.P. Singh

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