Applications for Australian universities from international students have dropped 51% since March this year, as states and universities take a second stab at returning students to in-person study.

Since borders closed almost two years ago, Australia’s universities have struggled to maintain international students, which have formed the backbone of Australia’s university system over the past ten years.

Parliamentary research released this year showed there has been a 66 per cent spike in international student enrolments over the past decade.

The newly released data from International student recruitment marketplace Adventus found that applications for Australian universities from international students fell by half since the start of 2021.

The marketplace, which partners with more than 1,500 institutions globally, found that since March, applications had grown by 148 per cent in Canada, 150 per cent in the UK and 422 per cent in the US as a result of a shift in the attractiveness and accessibility of these countries for international students.

Government figures for November show there are currently 259,752 student visa holders in the country, with over half engaged in higher education or postgraduate research.

Left outside

However, the figures also show there are still 148,464 student visa holders currently outside of the country.

Adventus chief executive officer Ryan Trainor told AAP the data suggested students who might have chosen Australia as a study destination are looking elsewhere.

“This may have a long-term impact on the country as we have lost nearly two years of students and the flow-on effect may have longer-term implications,” Trainor said.

Universities Australia has estimated the sector has lost 17,000 jobs since the start of the pandemic, and Victoria University think tank Mitchell Institute has released modelling suggesting the university sector faces cumulative losses of up to $19 billion over three years due to international border closures.

Starting in April, a group of bodies comprising universities in several states that represent the bulk of the country’s international student intake pushed to develop strategies to return students, including plans to create independent quarantine hubs.

However, these plans were abandoned when the majority of the east coast again locked down in mid-June when the Delta variant of COVID-19 spread in Australia.

Students, skilled migrants to return this year

On Monday, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg reiterated statements made by Prime Minister Scott Morrison last month that the government would consider returning international students, along with skilled migrants and other visa holders, by the end of the year.

“In the first instance, it will be for Australians, Australian residents and their families,” Morrison said in October, adding “we’ll see how that goes and then we’ll move to the other priorities, which I’ve already set out as being skilled migration, as well as students to Australia.”

The treasurer on Monday said that the government was optimistic it could bring back a range of visa holders now that international borders had reopened.

“Of course, we want international tourists and students as well. That work is under way. We’ll open those borders when it’s COVID-safe to do so. Clearly the first step has already been made,” Frydenberg said.

In the background, several universities have begun to resurrect their plans to welcome students, although only NSW has a defined plan in place for this year.

The plan will allow up to 250 international students studying with NSW education providers to return each fortnight from early December 2021.

Victoria’s recent proposal will at first allow 120 currently enrolled students nominated by universities to enter the state each week, with numbers to be expanded to more students and other providers over time.

Universities Australia Deputy Chief Executive Anne-Marie Lansdown said she was optimistic a “corner has been turned” as pilot plans have been announced to return international students to New South Wales, ACT, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland.

“The closure of international borders during the COVID-19 pandemic has obviously had an impact on the willingness of international students to enrol at an Australian university,” Lansdown said.

“Nonetheless, the fundamental attractiveness of an Australian education has not changed.”

This article was originally published by Business Insider Australia.