While large parts of the world have been recovering very gradually from the coronavirus pandemic and many countries have seen a resurgence of infections, the United Kingdom was even in the spring busily inviting students from around the world to its universities. The UK’s education sector is in direct competition with Australia and the United States. But unlike these two countries, the British did not scare off foreign students during the crisis; instead it supported them. Moreover, unlike most European countries, Britain continues to impose relatively mild entry restrictions. Its universities have therefore been able to compete for wealthy students from all over the world – particularly from Asian countries that were not so badly hit by the pandemic or have begun to recover from the crisis. UK higher-education institutions have had a considerable advantage over direct competitors in Australia and the US.
Universities are important enterprises for Australia, the UK and the US. Wealthy parents from China, India and other Asian countries spend a lot of money to enable their children to study in one of these three countries. So far, the US has been ahead of the pack, given the size of the country and its educational system. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), the country attracted 985,000 foreign students in 2017. But the UK (population 60 million) and Australia (population 24 million) have outsized foreign student populations, with 435,000 and 381,000 enrolled, respectively.
Students from China represent the bulk of foreign students: almost one million citizens are currently studying abroad. In Australia, Chinese students represent 38.3 percent of all higher-education enrollment, followed by Indians at 18 percent. The number of foreign students in Australia has almost doubled between 2008 and 2018, from 202,000 to 398,600. In 2017, income from fee-paying overseas students constituted 23.3 percent of the total revenue of Australian universities.
In the US, almost 370,000 Chinese students were enrolled in US higher-education programs in 2018. They contributed about US$15 billion in tuition payments. These students are particularly important for American universities since – unlike their domestic peers – less than a fifth receive a grant or scholarship from their school.
During the crisis, however, the Australian government has treated its foreign guests in a mean-spirited manner. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in early April that it was now time for people without permanent residence status to go home. He said it was nice to have had guests in "good times", but now they should leave the country. Morrison made an exception for “those backpackers in Australia who are nurses or doctors”. For those that provide useful skills, the Australian government will keep the doors open. But only for them.
According to the Australian government, all 2.17 million people who were in the country with temporary visas should have left. This includes students, tourists and people with work visas. In addition to foreign students, more than 200,000 tourists were in Australia at the time of the outbreak of the crisis. The export of educational services is the third-largest source of foreign exchange in the country after iron ore and coal production, providing employment for 250,000 people.