By Katie Johnson
Despite the City of Melbourne’s (CoM) efforts to bring international students back to the city, the state government doesn’t seem to be budging.
Premier Daniel Andrews said this month that bringing back international students in 2021 was “impossible”, despite it being Victoria’s largest service export.
“Tens of thousands of international students coming back here is going to be incredibly challenging, if not impossible, this year,” Premier Andrews said.
“We want to get it back as fast as we can, but the government is not spending hours and hours to try and make something I frankly think is not possible, possible.”
Pre-COVID there were 200,000 international students from 170 countries living in Melbourne, bringing in $13.7 billion in export revenue for the state.
But with student arrivals now at half, CoM has estimated Melbourne’s education sector will lose more than $1.5 billion in revenue and there will be 6800 fewer jobs.
During the last Future Melbourne Committee of 2020, Cr Phillip Le Liu said welcoming international students back to Melbourne was a major priority for council.
“Melbourne is the third best student city in the world, and I think we should aim to be number one because it’s going to be a very competitive market in a post-COVID world,” Cr Le Liu said.
The council also unanimously passed a motion that would see Lord Mayor Sally Capp write to the state and federal governments to urge them to put measures in place to return international students to Melbourne in 2021.
But with Premier Andrews’ latest comments, the prospect of students returning in time for the academic year seems unlikely.
An RMIT spokesperson said that as of January, international student applications were down by around 25 per cent compared to the same time last year.
“We know many of our international students are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to come back to Melbourne to complete their education and graduate,” the spokesperson said.
“RMIT is working closely with the Victorian Government and other Victorian universities on a state-wide approach that will allow international students to enter Victoria.”
A Melbourne University spokesperson said that they are still in talks with the government about how to facilitate a safe return of students.
“We recognise the challenges involved and look forward to being able to welcome all students, including our international students, back onto campus as soon as safely possible,” the spokesperson said.
With the once-booming market of international students ground to a halt, Melbourne’s mass of student accommodation is also lying empty.
Carlton is now predicted to have the highest vacancy rate in the country after lockdown decimated the university sector and more students were staying home.
Carlton Residents Association president Antoinette Sagaria said that the vacancy rate was one of the biggest issues facing the suburb.
“There is a grave concern that the use of these properties would change over time and it would be inappropriate use such as short-term accommodation,” Ms Sagaria said.
“We would rather have permanent residents.”
Scape owner Jenna Weber told the ABC that their empty accommodation would be best used as a quarantine facility if the government would consider it.
“A lot of our buildings have single studio apartments — they’re perfect to be used as quarantine,” Ms Weber said.
“If international students could quarantine with us, it won’t bottleneck those Australian residents coming back.”
Other countries such as the UK and Canada are already facilitating a staged return of international students.
CoM’s director of economic development and international Andrew Wear said that it put Melbourne at risk of being left behind economically.
“If international education is unable to return to Australia in 2021, Australia risks losing market share to other countries, with severe long-term consequences,” Mr Wear said.