By David Schout
The City of Melbourne has said it was “critical” international students began returning to the city for semester two of the tertiary year.
If they remained shut out, Melbourne risked “enduring brand damage” to its pre-COVID status as the third-best student city in the world.
The strong comments came as universities told the council that students were turning their backs on Melbourne in favour of the UK or Canada.
“The feedback we’ve been receiving from the universities in Melbourne is that students that are currently enrolled and set to start [studying] in Australia are currently changing their mind and … increasingly turning to Canada and the UK as destinations,” council’s director of economic development and international Andrew Wear said.
Overseas students make up more than a third (38 per cent) of CBD residents, and international education was the state’s single biggest export.
However, they are currently not able to arrive or return to Victoria due to restrictions on incoming arrivals.
There was little appetite among state and federal governments to change this in the short term, and Premier Daniel Andrews said in January there was “little prospect of many students returning this year”.
But in a report tabled at an April 13 Future Melbourne Committee meeting, the council said this would cause lasting damage.
“Stakeholder feedback indicates that Melbourne – and Australia – risks enduring brand damage if students continue to be prevented from arriving to undertake studies,” the report said.
“To mitigate this risk, it is critical that at least an initial group of students is able to arrive onshore for Semester 2 this year.”
The second semester for most universities is due to begin in late July.
The council said it would push upper levels of government to agree to a pilot program supporting the return of a “several thousand students” in time for Semester 2.
Victorian Universities recently proposed to help pay for a quarantine scheme modelled on the Australian Open program.
The council noted, however, that it should “not prioritise international students over returning Australians”.
Mr Wear said that the UK government had sent a signal that to international students it was “open for business”, which Australia had not.
“Our global competitive position is increasingly diminished and with time, we run the risk of enduring damage to our brand as a welcoming student city.”
The council said international students “contribute enormously” to the city’s economy, culture and vitality.
“They are customers, employees, tourists, performers, business operators and entrepreneurs,” the report said.
Cr Davvyd Griffiths said international students brought much more than just economic benefits to Melbourne.
“There are so many institutions that rely on students. It’s intrinsic to the life of our city,” he said.
“I feel the economic case speaks for itself. We know that international students bring far more than just economic impact. They make up to 39 per cent of residents of some of our suburbs, they’re the neighbours in our streets, volunteers and teach us more about the world. They become Melburnians who travel the world promoting Melbourne as ambassadors.”
Cr Philip Le Liu said it was “crucial” that the council stepped in.
“There is a place for everyone. I wouldn’t want a second-rate quarantine program – we need to get this right,” he said.
“I’m excited to see how we can shift discussion and implement a pilot program.”
Council’s “shout” a big winner
The same report noted the huge take-up of the “Our Shout” food voucher program for international students last year.
Overall, almost 10,000 students were able to access $200 worth of vouchers to spend at the Queen Victoria Market at the height of the pandemic.
The council said that the $2 million program, set up in less than three weeks in May 2020, was a win-win.
“This program provided much-needed funds directly to international students and QVM traders at a time when visitation to the market was at an all-time low.”