While our universities are making difficult financial and operational decisions in the wake of COVID 19, international students around Australia are also making tough decisions. For many international students, the pandemic has profoundly changed their lives for the last few months. And advice about whether to stay or go is far from clear.
Conflicting advice from family, home governments, the Australian government and universities can lead to a state of anxiety and confusion for many international students as they make their decision to stay on in Australia through the next few difficult months. This is particularly true for Chinese international students who are watching their home country enter recovery phase while Australia - and other nations - are worsening.
Last year, Australia was host to more than 750,000 international students. International education was Australia’s fourth largest export, bringing in $40.4 billion. This year, the situation is markedly different. Around 114,000 of the students who were expected to arrive so far this year, have not. Of these, 65 000 are from China the virus first led to travel restrictions.
Many have arrived. There are now around 500,000 international students who are in Australia. These students are part of our communities and an integral part of our workforce. But we can’t be sure they’ll stay. With classes moved online and the virus spreading in Australia and globally, many students, particularly those from China, are faced with the choice to stay or go home.
Wanda, an international business student from Shenyang managed to arrive in Australia on 16 March following a two-week transit in a third country. She has recently completed her self-quarantine here in her apartment in Melbourne. She’s decided to hunker down and stay on.
“I’m not thinking about going back to China. My plan is to stay at my apartment. If necessary, every two weeks I will leave my apartment to buy some necessary food and somethings I need. The rest of the time I will stay in my apartment and catch up on my course and study at home.” She receives strong advice from her family back in China and has decided, after the long journey to get here, that she’ll stay to complete her studies.
These decisions are being made at a time when Australia’s Prime Minister has told international students that the time has come to return to their home countries. Meanwhile, this poses a dilemma for Beijing with fears that returnees from studying abroad could worsen the outbreak. Yet failing to protect their people also risks a negative domestic and international image of a government leaving their citizens stranded during a crisis.
Kathy is a final year Masters’ student from China. She chose not to return to China for the holidays this year and was not affected by the 1 February travel ban like many of her classmates.
This is an anxious time for Kathy as she receives daily advice from home and has no face-to-face contact with anyone during her stay in Australia.
“I’m thinking of going back to China. My room mate is not here. I have no one to talk to in person. I can only FaceTime with my family and my friends. I feel like if there is any emergency that happened, I couldn’t let anyone know. No one would come to help me.
“My parents are seriously worried about my situation. They worry more than I do. I can stay home in Melbourne, but my family are concerned about my situation. They tell me not to go outside. They say the same words every day.”
While Kathy would like to get back to her family, she can’t for now. “The situation is that China has restricted all the international flights now. I think if China releases the flight restrictions, I might go back to China. I have nothing to do here in Melbourne.”
This is a time of heightened anxiety among students, facing sometimes conflicting advice from parents, universities, and the Australian and Chinese governments. These students are sometimes facing a very new context for their overseas study experience with some having lost their part-time job, and many isolated in their homes while completing their courses online, thereby forgoing what they often perceive as a large part of what they have paid for – an intercultural, international experience.
Xuenan is also a final year masters’ student. She came back to Australia in January – just before the travel ban was put in place.
“I was fortunate that I didn’t have to do the compulsory self-quarantine. But I am going back to China next week. I was really lucky that I was able to buy tickets.
The trip will be a gruelling one. “I have to fly from Melbourne to Sydney and then I have to stay in Sydney for a night. Then I fly from Sydney to Guangzhou. When I arrive in Guangzhou, I will need to quarantine myself for 14 days. Then I can fly from Guangzhou to my home town. It’s a long and dangerous trip for me”, she says.
Xuenan says her parents are not entirely sure she should be making the trip at all. “It’s very dangerous for me to do this,” they told her. But she feels a sign of good fortune that she managed to get the tickets as many people now don’t have this option with most flights cancelled and prices skyrocketing.
The decision to stay or go is deeply personal and shaped by each student’s own context. It might be a chance opportunity to get home or the loneliness of an unexpected solo life in Melbourne, that leads to the decision to leave Australia. Institutional and government policies are also shaping these personal decisions. The ability to study anywhere with new online offerings and messaging from both the Chinese and Australian governments form the backdrop to these personal contexts. These decisions are complex. They bridge the personal and the political and highlight the diversity of ways that mobility decisions are made in times of crisis.
For those that do get home, there is hope that the dream of studying in Australia isn’t over. “I want to come back to Australia,” says Xuenan. “I have many travel plans in Australia that I haven’t finished. I wish this Corona virus would finish soon so I can come back to Australia.”
The Lygon Group’s International Student Impact Video Series examines the daily experiences of international students during the COVID-19 global pandemic. The second episode will be released in coming weeks.
Dr Angela Lehmann is a sociologist who has published research on international migration and China and holds honorary positions at The Australian National University and The University of Xiamen. She is The Lygon Group’s Education Analyst.