University of NSW staff pose for the 'Australia Welcomes You' campaign

Universities are facing massive losses as international students drop their plans to study in Australia. In China, fewer than 50% of those who had studied overseas plan to return, with 60% of prospective international students now reluctant to study abroad. 

At some Australian universities, international students make up 30-40% of the total revenue. The latest modelling has universities braced for losses of up to $16 billion by 2023.

The middle of a pandemic, with travel restrictions and border closures still in place, is a strange time to be marketing to international students. But, given institutions’ reliance on them, they might have to. 

What are Australian unis doing? 

Last week a number of Australian business leaders and university vice-chancellors participated in “Australia Welcomes You” — a damage-control campaign co-created by the Chinese Australian Forum. They posed with signs reading “Australia welcomes you”, and the photos were shared on Chinese social media platforms.

In April, the Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) partnered with a social learning platform to promote Australian universities with free courses and digital certificates. The program has been extended until the end of the month, with more than 650,000 students across more than 200 countries signing up for online courses.

But as far as advertising goes, that’s about it.

An Inq search found that none of the “Group of Eight” universities have current paid ad campaigns on Facebook (though there weren’t many prior to the pandemic). There also didn’t seem to be advertisements placed on popular education and student placement websites.

Experts said they weren’t aware of many campaigns either.

Sociologist Dr Angela Lehmann is an honorary lecturer at the Australian National University and adjunct assistant professor at Xiamen University in China. She told Inq that the focus was on already-enrolled students and universities’ online capabilities. 

“This marketing approach has been existing students or those who have enrolled … the sector needs students to be continuing with their studies online to prevent them from deferring,” she said. 

Pilot programs to bring small groups of students back into Australia to complete their degrees has been put on pause as the pandemic accelerates in Victoria and around the world. 

Associate professor in entrepreneurship and innovation at Swinburne University Marina Zhang told Inq she was aware of increased scholarships, but few ads or campaigns.

Head of scholarships and professional learning at Victoria University Maxwell Winchester told Inq there wasn’t much point in advertising during a pandemic. “I guess universities are feeling like they can’t advertise, because of border closures,” he said. 

What’s happening around the world?

In Canada, universities are considering paying for hotel rooms for returning international students, with visa application centres reopening around the world. France has opened its borders to international students from the start of this month, with international students’ visas processed as a priority.

Meanwhile, universities in the US are scrambling to reopen. The Trump administration has abandoned its plan to strip international students of their visas if they didn’t attend face-to-face classes following a lawsuit resolution.

One survey found prospective Chinese students were favouring UK universities over those in the US thanks to reformed visa policies. UK universities are also recognising other English test results after the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exams were cancelled.

Chinese university marketing agency China Higher Education reported Chinese universities have invested in scholarships and promotional campaigns.

Some universities in China offered “companionships” to international students, pairing a local student with an international arrival. The programs sparked outrage after Chinese female students were commonly paired with male international students.

What approach should Australia take?

Lehmann said two messages needed to be sent out: one to international students, and one to the Australian community. “We need to have our communities onboard with this sector, aware of international education and its link to tourism, retail and housing,” she said.

Secondly, universities have to focus on students’ experiences. “There’s a sense they’re being forgotten, and there’s a lot of anxiety … making sure students are welcome and being provided with support needs to be a key marketing message,” she said.

Zhang said that Australian universities need to address their perception problem. Her research, which is yet to be published, shows they’re perceived in China as easy to get in to. “The lower entry level is perceived as lower quality, so that puts competitiveness in the Chinese job market in a compromised position,” she said.

Australian universities also don’t offer many work experience opportunities compared to universities in the US.

“That’s the weakest point in terms of the competitiveness in the job market,” she said. “You see people coming to Australia because they couldn’t get into the top-tier university in China, get a degree with no work experience and then go back to that competitive Chinese market.” 

In comparison, Winchester said little needed to be done to entice students, thanks to both education and health quality in Australia. “I don’t know if we need to market ourselves … the US and the UK are marketing for us because we’re handling the pandemic so well,” he said. 

“The message you need to get out is ‘you’re safer here than in the US … Australia has a good lifestyle, fresh air and we’re good at dealing with pandemics’.”

Importantly, Winchester added, Australian unis ultimately need to move away from relying on Asian markets and consider other areas, such as Africa. “What this pandemic shows is how vulnerable and unsustainable our system is,” he said. 

“Domestic enrolments are still going strong … the financial issues are not caused by a lack of students, but underfunding.”

Peter Fray

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