Burn you bastard. Burn! At the ABC:
A government program to bring international university students back to Australia is yet to get off the ground, as businesses reliant on overseas students warn the market will take years to recover, even in the unlikely event borders reopened for next year’s semester one intake.
The Federal Education Minister has told The Business “it’s very hard to tell” when students will be able to start coming into the country.
Earlier this year, the ACT and federal governments planned a pilot program to get 350 continuing international students back to Canberra so they could recommence their studies on campus in semester two.
That was delayed after the second wave of coronavirus struck Melbourne.
In late August, a new pilot was announced in partnership with South Australia, with plans for up to 300 students to return to the state this month.
So far, none have arrived and Education Minister Dan Tehan was unable to give any assurances about when the program will start.
“Obviously there was an announcement that South Australia was keen to start on that pilot, but we’ve also made it very clear in discussions we’ve had that we’ve got to sort out those internal border issues and issues regarding returning Australians, but we’ll continue to work through the issues,” Mr Tehan told The Business.
A spokesperson for the South Australian Government said the “final logistics were being worked through”, including which countries the students would come from.
A sticking point has been the caps the states have put on international arrivals, which have meant thousands of Australian citizens have had trouble returning home.
South Australia had a limit of 500 people per week, which was yesterday lifted by 360.
Mr Tehan said state premiers were expected to ensure no international students took the place of Australians returning from overseas.
Student arrivals drop from tens of thousands to dozens
While figures from the Department of Home Affairs show 555,310 student-visa holders remained in Australia as of June 30, arrivals from overseas have ground to a halt.
Last July, an estimated 144,000 students arrived in time for the second semester of study, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
This July, just 40 students arrived.
With international travel largely at a halt, restricting students’ ability to return home for visits, there are also fewer departures than last year.
But the number of students leaving still far exceeds those arriving.
Student-visa holder arrivals and departures
2019 arrivals 2019 departures 2020 arrivals 2020 departures Jan 90,260 68,720 91,610 75,640 Feb 183,900 44,650 121,320 28,960 Mar 72,150 31,960 60,360 42,130 Apr 44,500 45,410 30 9,910 May 34,260 39,300 40 5,460 Jun 46,040 118,850 60 7,450 Jul 143,840 65,290 40 12,130 Aug 54,960 39,680 Sep 45,300 48,430 Oct 50,830 39,230 Nov 38,260 109,430 Dec 38,690 142,940
With COVID-19 restrictions moving many classes online, the on-campus experience has been compromised.
Mr Tehan praised the nation’s universities for being “second to none” in shifting to remote learning, adding many students who had opted to enrol and start studying online would eventually be able to come to Australia.
However, 65,839 international students deferred their studies between January and June, and only 21 per cent of those have since recommenced their courses.
Migration agent Seema Shah has worked in international student recruitment for nearly two decades.
She expects the majority of deferred students who already hold a visa to eventually commence study in Australia because they have already paid the fees and gone through the approval process.
But she said there would undoubtedly be some lost to other markets.
“The UK had a big intake of students in September and they allowed students to travel, and so I know we have lost many students who have gone to the UK,” she said.
Student slump hits accommodation providers
Universities are far from the only institutions feeling the pain of the pandemic’s hit to the international student market.
A recent analysis by education think tank the Mitchell Institute found international students were in more than 30 per cent of the accommodation in some inner-city and close-to-campus suburbs.
About a third of the students’ spending was in retail and hospitality, with another third spent in the property sector.
Some of that spend ends up in the purpose-built student accommodation sector, comprising specialty housing developments that have capitalised on the massive growth in international student numbers over recent years.
Empty seats are not an uncommon sight in student housing before lunchtime, but the halls of Iglu Student Accommodation in inner Sydney are unusually quiet this year.
According to data compiled by property consulting firm Urbis, there are nearly 113,000 purpose-built student accommodation beds in Australia, and a further 45,500 in the pipeline, either under construction, in development or planning.
Clinton Ostwald, the group director at Urbis, said there had been significant growth in the student accommodation sector over the past six years.
“About half of that is actually owned by universities, either directly or through joint venture, and about 40 per cent is owned by private developers, with colleges making up the balance,” he said.
Iglu owns and runs accommodation in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Mr Gliksten said international students typically made up between 60 to 80 per cent of the occupants depending on the location.
While he is hopeful domestic university enrolments will increase and substitute some of the international students, as has been the case in previous downturns, he still expects to wait several years until occupancy levels return to their pre-coronavirus highs.
Mr Ostwald has the same prediction.
“It’ll take a few years to recover from this sort of crisis once we actually start getting students coming back in that first year, to then convert them to second and third-year students, and actually build that pipeline that helps fill the beds,” he said.
In the meantime, student accommodation providers hope to be part of the solution to bringing international students back onshore next year, as an alternative to existing quarantine hotels.
“We’re working really closely with the state governments and the universities to try and achieve that,” Mr Gliksten said.
“Without students coming through the border control, it’s a fairly depressing picture for both international education and student accommodation.”
More great news:
Australian university students and their families have been left tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket after several Melbourne colleges they were meant to live at this year refused to refund their costs.
Many have signed “watertight” accommodation contracts that mean they must continue to pay rent on residential facilities they have not been able to use for months, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In many cases, requests by students for refunds and rental reductions have been refused, despite some of their families having been hit hard by job losses due to the pandemic.
Some universities are instead offering students study credits, scholarships or waiving penalties for breaking contracts, which means families of those students are not getting their money back.
Others are being forced to pay out their entire contracts — some of which have locked students into a 12-month arrangement that has left them paying for empty rooms in Melbourne, while they have moved back to their homes in regional Victoria and interstate.
Lucia Bowles, 18, from Bendigo in central Victoria, paid $17,735 to live at University College — a charity-listed facility — on Melbourne University’s Parkville campus during semester one.
Her family paid for 18 weeks’ accommodation at the dormitory, but Lucia was only there for six weeks before she returned home to Bendigo because of restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
University College has not offered to refund semester one fees to students, but Matt and Lucia Bowles said they had been offered $3,000 in credits for semester two.
University College did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Melbourne University was also contacted for comment.
An Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) spokesperson told the ABC registered charities were expected to operate according to their charitable values.
The nation’s university regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, said it had received no complaints from students about accommodation services during the pandemic.
Students caught up in contracts, tenancy agreements
Other students have also paid as much as $13,000 to on-site student accommodation facilities they are not staying in because of coronavirus.
Melbourne University students said University College had waived the fee for breaking the accommodation contract, but was still expecting the terms of the contracts to be fulfilled. For those who had demonstrated hardship, the college had offered a $1,000 scholarship to go towards semester two fees.
Lily Graydon moved from Perth to Melbourne to study at RMIT University and said she had been unable to break her “watertight” agreement with Centurion Student Services at Dwell Village, North Melbourne.
Ms Graydon’s agreement is different from Ms Bowles’s because it is a tenancy agreement.
However, educational institutions are not regulated by the Residential Tenancies Act and were not included in Victoria’s Omnibus emergency measures introduced in response to the pandemic.
‘They should cut their contract’
A University College contract for a boarding student shows that if a resident is absent for any reason within the contract dates, they will not receive a refund.
Mr Bowles, along with other families who have spoken to the ABC, have also learned they will not be receiving a refund from their student accommodation provider.
Ms Graydon is now living rent-free in a Brunswick share house with a friend but still paying Centurion Student Services $470 each week for a space she has not lived in since April.
Despite her contract running from January 1, 2020, to December 31, 2020, she said she left the residential complex because without face-to-face learning she saw no point in being there, felt isolated due to Melbourne’s strict lockdowns, and she believed she had a higher chance of contracting COVID-19 in the accommodation facility than at her friend’s house.
Dwell Village told the ABC it had been handling requests on a case-by-case basis and had helped 141 residents able to demonstrate genuine need or financial hardship.
Students need to ‘get a break’
Former Law Institute of Victoria president Geoff Bowyer said students who signed RMIT and Monash University tenancy agreements might be able to have the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal consider whether relief could be granted if a contract had “harsh or unconscionable” terms.
Court cases in the United Kingdom have begun to question tenancy agreements and whether a reasonable person would enter into a tenancy lease or contract if they knew a pandemic was coming.
Under Australian Consumer Law and the Fair Trading Act, a contract that is impossible to carry out for reasons beyond all parties’ control becomes a “frustrated contract”.
If it falls into that category, it means a student accommodation provider would have to refund money for the services not provided, but it could keep some of the balance to cover expenses.
RMIT Student Union president Daniel Hoogstra said student accommodation facilities needed to give students a break.
“If students aren’t in a situation where they can actually stay there and be using services, why should they be paying for them?” he asked.
National Union of Students president Molly Willmott said there were a lot of students across Australia frustrated because they were paying for services they were not receiving.
“The fairest solution here is there needs to be a remission of funds,” Ms Willmott said.
A Consumer Affairs Victoria spokesperson said if the student and accommodation provider were unable to meet the conditions of the contract due to coronavirus, the student might be eligible for a refund depending on the circumstances.
“Accommodation providers are encouraged to be flexible and exercise goodwill towards students,” the spokesperson said.
“Students should carefully read the terms and conditions of the accommodation provider, so they know their options if they have to change or cancel their arrangements.”
Some universities suspend rental fees
A Monash University spokesperson said it was not penalising students who chose to return home during the pandemic and its subsequent lockdown periods in Victoria.
But a Tasmanian student, who asked to remain anonymous because she was still enrolled at Monash University, said she had spent just 36 nights at the university’s Clayton Urban Community halls before moving home due to the pandemic earlier this year.
Yet because her contract runs from January 16, 2020, to December 17, 2020, she says she has been paying $43.25 a day/$302.75 a week in rent all year.
In a statement, the Monash University spokesperson said that Monash Residential Services (MRS), which runs the university’s accommodation facilities, had advised all residents on March 23, 2020, that they had “the opportunity to cancel their accommodation leases and leave their room without financial penalty”.
“Under normal circumstances, students would be liable for the room rental until the end of the residential contract, or until the room was leased to another student,” the statement said.
But the Tasmanian student said she had not received any communication from the MRS or the university in relation to being able to break her lease.
She said she had been unable to retrieve her belongings after moving home, and wanted a rent reduction because she was not using any of the accommodation facility’s utilities.
Other students also studying at the university, but living at home, said they were still paying rent to MRS and that they, too, wanted a rent reduction because they were not using the utilities such as electricity, water, and wi-fi.
But the Monash University spokesperson said MRShad, since the start of the pandemic, assisted many of its residents with packing and storing their belongings when they couldn’t return to remove them — for a “small fee”.
The spokesperson said MRS was also offering payment plans and had temporarily waived fees for late payments.
Monash Student Association (MSA) president James McDonald said the union was “deeply concerned” that students had said they were having great difficulty in cancelling their contracts with MRS.
A La Trobe Universityspokesperson said the university had put a hold on rental payments for students who chose to move out of student accommodation and return home to study online.
A spokesperson for Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, in regional New South Wales, said the university had only charged accommodation fees for the time students had actually lived on campus.
A University of Queensland spokesperson said students living in the university-owned accommodation were only charged a fee for the time they had resided there, and the university had waived all contract cancellation fees.
Let a great fire purge politics, universities, property and labour markets of this corrupt citizenship trade.