As students head back to college, Melbourne realizes what we’ve been missing
For Calvin Fernando, a postgraduate architecture student in India, the return of students to university lecture halls, tutoring rooms and design studios means being able to walk the streets and admire buildings he sometimes doubted he would see a day.
Throughout the past year, as the pandemic raged in his hometown of Chennai and Melbourne suffered its sixth lockdown, Fernando, 26, got up before dawn and logged into his computer at 4.30am to follow online lectures and communicate with classmates nearly 15,000 kilometers away.
Fernando signed up to do a Masters in Architecture at RMIT towards the end of 2020 when it looked like Melbourne was virus-free. He was supposed to start classes here in March 2021. Instead, Delta arrived and the borders remained closed.
At home, the second epidemic wave in India hit Chennai hard, as well as Fernando’s family. A study published in the Lancet estimates that eight out of 10 people have been exposed to the virus. With oxygen supplies depleted and burial grounds depleted, remote learning couldn’t have felt more remote.
It wasn’t until Christmas Day 2021 that Fernando finally arrived in Melbourne. As he emerged from quarantine, he walked along Swanston Street to the RMIT campus. “It was surreal to see all these people, all these restaurants, all these different architectural buildings,” he says. He is delighted to be able to use all that RMIT and Melbourne have to offer.
Before the pandemic, not everyone felt the same way about international students.
During the last state elections, there was heated debate over Melbourne’s population growth. Economists were divided on whether our large influx of temporary migrants was good or bad for the labor market. Some have compared our temporary migration program to a Ponzi scheme. When COVID-19 arrived, Australia’s border policies and our broader response to the pandemic showed little sympathy for overseas students or universities’ reliance on their enrolments.
“A lot of people seemed to think the loss of international students was because universities were getting money,” said University of Melbourne Deputy Vice-Chancellor Michael Wesley. “There was almost a feeling of schadenfreude about it.”
Professor Wesley says those conversations seem to have changed.
Victoria’s population has shrunk by 56,000 in the financial year 2020-21 and the number of people arriving to study in higher education has fallen from 111,000 in the last pre-pandemic year to just 700. Victoria and most of the country face a glut of jobs and a shortage of people to do them.
A two-year drought has taught us to appreciate what international students do for this city. Melbourne chief executive Martine Letts’ committee says it goes beyond the tuition fees they pay universities for the jobs they do, to the money they invest in the local economy , the contribution they make to research and, for those remaining after graduation, their continued work and community involvement.
The pandemic has proven that a college degree can be earned online, but that’s not what universities are for. “Young people coming to college certainly want a world-class education, but they come to be with other people,” says Professor Wesley. “That’s what the university has been for almost 1,000 years.”
Professor Young calls it a “fortuitous connection”: the relationship and understanding you build with students and teaching staff, whether in a tutorial or over a pint at the Oxford Scholar, the campus pub of the town of Rmit.
With Victoria’s unemployment rate falling to its lowest level in 48 years, returning international students are being welcomed by potential employers.
Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Center chief executive Peter King said international students made up between 20% and 25% of its casual workforce before the pandemic. “They’re a great group, their work ethic is fantastic, they bring a variety of skills to the workplace and a diversity of cultures and languages,” says King. “I really think it’s been a big wake-up call from a political and community perspective on how important these people are.”
The center has been largely mothballed since March 2020, when the Victorian government drew up alarming plans to take over the cavernous space and convert it into a 1,000-bed intensive care hospital and morgue. The center is now preparing to host major events again, such as next month’s AIME Asia Pacific business conference which is expected to attract up to 2,000 visitors.
Delaware North, a global foodservice company that provides corporate hospitality at the Australian Open, MCG, Marvel Stadium and Royal Botanic Gardens, depends on student and working holiday visas for about a quarter of its local workforce. Vice President of Human Services Traci Ehorne says the ad hoc nature of event hospitality is a perfect fit for college students. “We welcome them with open arms,” she says.
The university in 2022 will not be quite like in 2019. Professor Young speaks of a “blended model” where much of the course content will be available online and on demand, but courses will still be delivered in person. Students have made it clear that they don’t just want to enroll, they want to go. “We definitely sense an excitement to come back to campus,” says Professor Young. “The aspiration is, let’s get it all back on campus.”
This aspiration is not limited to urban campuses. Victoria University will welcome students to the first day of classes at its west Melbourne campuses on Monday.
Vice-Chancellor Adam Shoemaker, who first arrived in Australia from Canada as an international student, says there is hesitation among some staff that needs to be managed, but almost none among students. The day he spoke to the Age, he had just hosted a large gathering of international students at the Footscray Gardens.
“Our swimming pools and gymnasiums are open, our libraries are open, daycares are open,” he says. “If anything, you get the impression that the students are desperate to have their peers around them.
“There is some hesitation among some staff members who may have health issues. We just have to work on that. We have to remember that we are here for 40,000 students. It is our reason for being. »
International students are starting to arrive, but universities would like that to happen more quickly. According to the federal government, more than 56,000 international students have arrived in Australia since November last year. As of January 24, nearly 77,950 international students currently registered to study in Victoria had arrived here, but nearly 50,000 were still abroad.
The reasons are administrative and logistical. The Home Office reports that 50% of new applications for student visas to study at university are processed within 18 days, but 25% of applications take more than three months to assess. Flight availability remains an issue, especially for Chinese students cut off from international travel by Beijing’s COVID-zero border settings.
“It is clear that getting more international flights is essential to getting more students to return,” said Victoria Trade Minister Martin Pakula. “We are working closely with our universities to support the arrival of students to Victoria and are looking to establish more air services to Melbourne.”
Other flights should be available from Monday. The University of Melbourne has engaged ATPI, a global travel agency, to purchase flight tickets to resell to international students.
Martine Letts from the Melbourne Committee says Australia should use this tipping point as an opportunity to review and rethink our approach to international students.
Ten years ago, the Gillard government changed immigration laws to make it harder for international students to become permanent residents. As a result, only 14% of people who come here to study stay after graduation. Given the national demand for a more skilled and educated workforce, should we be doing more to retain the smart young people we graduate?
“The pandemic has in many ways been a catalyst for change, allowing us to take a holistic look at how we want to do things and refreshing ourselves,” Ms Letts says. “This includes how we manage the successful return of international students to Melbourne to their advantage, to the benefit of the city, its educational institutions and our economy.”
The Lord Mayor says it more bluntly. “I hope their importance to us has been highlighted to us during this pandemic. As a nation, we haven’t necessarily treated them well,” says Cr Capp.
The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the most important and interesting stories, analysis and ideas of the day. register here.