When 19-year old Pranavi Jamwal got admission last year into one of the world’s top ten political science programmes at Australia’s top university which has produced Nobel Laureates and Prime Ministers, she was thrilled.
The only problem? Rather than mingling with fellow students at The Australian National University’s prestigious Canberra campus, she has been stuck at home in New Delhi, waking up for 4 a.m. online classes.
“COVID has disrupted my plans, and the Australian government is unable to give any clear timeline when I will be allowed to enter the country, and it now looks that at least half my course will be online,” she said. “I’m the only student in my class who is trying to join the lectures online as all the others are on campus, so it is quite isolating. In Australia, they want to create a COVID-free environment, rather than learn to deal with COVID like Europe is doing.”
Avtar Saini is in an even more dire situation. The 23-year- old, studying for a Bachelor of Professional Accounting at Holmes Institute in Queensland, was in the final year of his programme when he came home to Kurukshetra on March 4, 2020 on a family visit. Two weeks later, Australia shut its borders, leaving him stranded. “I was not aware they would ban our entry. I have been trying to defer classes, as it is hard to understand a mathematical subject online. But I may have to start online classes in July, as my visa is also expiring in October,” he said. “I have a rental house there on my contract, as well as a car for which I am still paying,” he added.
Faced with closed borders, the number of Indian students heading to Australia has been sinking since the pandemic began. According to IDP Education, which cited Australian government data, Indian students granted an Australian visa dropped from 21,433 in 2019-20 to 11,200 in 2020-21.
Last week, two Australian States announced plans to start a pilot programme to allow international students back into the country at the rate of about 800 per month. Australia’s High Commissioner to India Brian O’Farrell admits that the scope of the problem is much larger, but says this is an important first step. “We have over 470,000 people who are entitled to be in Australia, studying whether in postgraduate, research, undergraduate or other elements of education, and currently 150,000 of those are offshore,” he told The Hindu in a recent interview.
“I'm not wishing to get their hopes up any higher. But what is positive is that two states, including Australia's largest state, only last week announced pilot programmes to demonstrate not just to the federal government, but to the Australian community, that international students can return to our shores without there being a community health problem,” he said. International students may be able to return at the end of the first semester in 2022. “I'm optimistic about next year. Do I think that's going to placate the students here in India who should have been in Australia? No, and I have great sympathy for them,” said Mr. O’Farrell.
Deepesh Batra no longer believes such assurances from the Australian government. The 25-year-old was admitted into a Masters in Information Technology programme at the University of Wollongong and has deferred classes, rather than take them online.
“They are misguiding students, giving false promises before each new intake, so that students are lured into applying. But each time, the timelines have been extended,” he said, noting that Australia was unwilling to commit to the “scientific approach” of allowing vaccinated students to enter the country. “A group of us have been writing emails to Mr. O’Farrell as well as the Australian Education Minister Alan Tudge, who has gone so far as to block some Indian students on Twitter, but there is no clarity,” he said, adding that the Indian Ministry of External Affairs also collected students’ details last month.
Umang Kalia, a 20-year old from Ludhiana is struggling with online classes for a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing at Australia’s youngest university, Torrens University. “You cannot study a practical medical programme in this way. I have already failed one course, for which I had to pay tuition fees again,” he said. “Overall, I am paying ₹16 lakh for one year, including for sports and accommodation facilities that I cannot benefit from. They are offering a 5% scholarship which is not enough. My family has put all our savings so I could go to Australia, but there is no use in this,” he said.
“We are not actively recommending Australia to any of our students right now,” said Akshay Chaturvedi, founder of Leverage Edu, an agency facilitating foreign study for Indian students. “We get about 2,000 applications each month, and Australia aspirants have dropped from 20% to less than 5%. Pre-COVID, Australia was leading the charts, but the scenario has shifted. The pilot programmes are good news, but there needs to be more clarity and better communication,” he added.
Mr. O’Farrell believes that in the long run, Australia’s focus on health will pay off and make it competitive again as a destination for Indian students. “Firstly, its quality. We're a very small country, but we have universities in the top 100 in the world. Secondly, the fact that at a price point, it is more cost effective than North America and the U.K. And thirdly, they’ll be returning to a safe community as we've had a very light brush with COVID,” he said.