Thousands of international students from Victoria have returned, but there are still more to come

Thousands of international students have returned to Victoria since Australia’s borders reopened, but some students are still studying online or have not returned at all.

Latest figures show 37,000 international students have returned to study in Victoria since December last year.

Jinru Sun, an interior design student, is one of them.

She said she was grateful to be back in Melbourne after spending a year studying remotely from China in 2020.

In 2021, she decided to take some time off until she could come back to learn in person.

“I prefer communicating with my tutors and classmates face to face and enjoying the cool library here,” she said.

She enjoys living in Melbourne, which she says is an inclusive and creative city.

“There are people from different backgrounds and people from different cultures all come here,” she said.

Jinru Sun had to put her year-long design course on hold when the pandemic prevented her from returning to Melbourne until 2022.(ABC News: Pat Rocca)

Not all students returned

There are now 105,600 international students in Victoria, up from around 155,000 before the pandemic.

Of the 129,300 student visa holders in Victoria, around 18% are still abroad or studying abroad.

The state government is pouring more money into marketing Melbourne as a study destination, hoping to bring the industry back to where it used to be.

As part of a new five-year education recovery plan, it will continue to invest in Melbourne study abroad centers where international students can learn and socialise.

Hubs are currently in place in Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh City, with pop-up locations in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

A room full of college aged people in a lecture hall in an Asian city
Melbourne Study Centers are being set up overseas to entice international students to return to Victoria.(Supplied: Victorian Government)

The government is also expanding its Global Education Network program, sending state officials to market Victoria’s education sector in Colombia, Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

The $53 million plan includes an extension and expansion of half-price transit passes for international students.

Commerce Minister Tim Pallas said the plan recognized some of the challenges faced by students and the sector at the height of the pandemic.

“The whole community has suffered, but perhaps the education sector more than any other,” he said.

“It will take a few years to reach those levels of 155,000 students, but we will see a solid return from next year.”

A bald man wearing a suit jacket and shirt stands outside in profile.
Treasurer Tim Pallas says education has been hit hard by the pandemic.(PA: Erik Anderson)

Although many courses are still available online and some courses are likely to move to a more permanent hybrid model, universities like the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology want students to return in person.

“I am very clear that the benefits for most of our students are a face-to-face, physically present education,” said Professor Sherman Young, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of RMIT University.

“It’s fantastic to see [returning] students not only engage in their learning, but also in the social connection that we know is just as important,” he said.

“I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that international education isn’t just about money. It’s really about making the world a better place,” he said.

Easier than ever for international students to find work

Bhavya Bagaria is studying business at Deakin University and said now is a good time for students to consider returning to Australia given the ease with which international students find work.

He said he has already been able to secure paid work related to his degree since arriving in Australia this year from his home in Mumbai, India.

Bhavya wears a gray shirt and stands under roadside trees outside a university building.
Bhavya Bagaria studied online at Deakin University before being allowed to return to Australia.(ABC News: Pat Rocca)

“I hear that from all my friends at college too,” he said.

“Since the unemployment rate is so low, there are so many opportunities for international students to gain hands-on experience while studying.”

But it is not so easy for all students to return to Australia, especially in cases where there are still travel restrictions, such as in China.

Jinru Sun would normally return to see her family in China during the semester vacation, but was unable to do so due to changing restrictions and a lack of available and affordable flights.

“I hope this situation will improve by the end of the year,” she said.

International education consultant Dirk Mulder said he expects large numbers of students to return to Australia when Chinese travel restrictions are eased.

Chinese students are by far the largest cohort of international student visa holders and data from the Federal Department for Education and Skills shows that about 35% of them stay abroad.

“China is still coming out of some pretty severe lockdowns, so as we start to see the increased mobility of Chinese students, I think we’ll see that number [studying offshore] decrease significantly,” he said.

“What I would think is the first half of next year we should see a very strong rebound.”