With COVID-19 disrupting travel, shutting borders, and redefining what is essential work, Pandemic Borders explores what international migration will look like after the pandemic, in this series titled #MigrantFutures
The future of international students currently hangs in the balance, at least for the foreseeable future. While some students have returned home, many remain in Australia. Many international students continue to study online from abroad – a form of virtual migration in the hope of a better future.
Having an opportunity to undertake studies in Australia is generally perceived as a privilege – a view that has not changed despite the pandemic. With COVID-19, some students who left temporarily or have recently been admitted are now waiting anxiously in their home countries for the opportunity to go to Australia. This rests with decisions yet to be made by both home and host government countries. Health, economic, and political landscapes are all playing their part in determining when, who and how many students will be allowed in.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted migration on a global scale. International students as temporary migrants seem in many cases to bear the brunt of travel restrictions, limited access to government support and employment loss.
Demographic and economic impacts
For countries like Australia that rely on a positive migration net balance, the demographic and economic impacts are far-reaching. In the case of international students, the circumstances have hit the university sector hard. The economic impact is likely to be ongoing for several years. However, the geographical location of Australia is bound to once again prove popular to international students from the Asia Pacific region when borders are reopened. The diversification of higher education markets have been on the agenda for some time and it is now likely that the demographics of the international student population will change more quickly. Regardless, it remains that the largest numbers will continue to be sourced from provider countries in the Asia Pacific region.
While the immediate future looks uncertain and worrying in terms of when international students can return, there is greater hope in the longer term. Both the sector and international students themselves have previously demonstrated great resilience. Let’s not forget the complete recovery of the international education sector following its devastation relating to the violence against primarily Indian international students around 2009. Once the issue was sorted the sector was rebuilt to greater than previous levels.
The new concern: health
The issue of health, and particularly mental health of international students must now take centre stage. Student and parents’ consideration of best destinations to undertake international education are now likely to factor health and well-being support as part of the decision-making process. With international students increasingly identified as needing support, Australia must show that support is available and well-suited to the student cohort.
Many studies will result from the current context and reveal how best to respond to international student mental health and well-being more generally. Studies on specific cohorts need to be conducted, as each group tends to vary considerably from the next. No longer can we afford to group all international students in the one basket, not even those from one region or ethnicity, given the nuances among large international student groups from China, India, Nepal, Malaysia, Vietnam, or Singapore, for example. A recent study focused on Singaporean international students’ attitudes toward mental health and the findings revealed that this group of students had shifted their perspective towards an acceptance of mental health issues. This was in contrast with general perceptions that international students do not acknowledge the need for help. But we need to look at different cohorts to show how the issue of mental health is viewed from diverse perspectives. It is not new that specialist support services need to be provided for culturally diverse groups but it is now more crucial. Mental health services need to be re-evaluated to ensure they are no longer a mismatch with international students’ needs.
The issue of health, and particularly mental health of international students must now take centre stage
From many years of studying the experiences of international students, I continue to hold that this group of resilient temporary migrants is committed to overcoming the significant challenges they face, which have of course been exacerbated by COVID-19. International students never seem to lose sight of their assessment that Australia is one of the best places in the world to undertake an international education and perhaps become a permanent home.
Online or on campus
A shift to teleworking or studying online or from home as it is more commonly referred to in Australia is likely to continue at least in part for most international students. For some, it will mean that it is possible to obtain an international degree without the disruption, insecurity and costs associated with leaving one’s home and country. For others, a move to online study will be viewed as a temporary measure that can later be combined with traditional on-campus teaching.
Alternatively, it may be used as a ‘gap-filler’ until the experience of on-campus teaching can once again be enjoyed when local and international border restrictions are eased and movement of people across states and countries resumes. While the shift to online study already looks like a permanent fixture, for international students there remains a strong desire to also enjoy the experience of on-campus learning where the cultural experiences associated with being in a host country cannot be superseded by an online chatroom.
The social and economic fallout of COVID-19 suggests that international student migration futures are on-hold. It is difficult to estimate when we will see significant numbers returning or arriving in Australia. We are faced with exceptional circumstances as, unlike events in the past, it is difficult to determine when recovery will begin. Providing a variety of teaching and learning modes will better prepare for varying economic circumstances as well as cater for diverse student circumstances and preferences. Health concerns and political dimensions will play a role in determining the demographics of future students and the timing of their return in great numbers.