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Australia and Canada: Responses to international student mobility uncertainties

One of the biggest questions in international higher education these days is how international student mobility flows will further develop in the context of the continued COVID-19 pandemic, and how different countries and higher education systems will respond to the related intricacies and remaining uncertainties while trying to facilitate mobility. As it were to be expected, responses differ and are not unidirectional. For example, Australia is working on changing visa rules to speed-up mobility once the travel restrictions will be eased or over, while Germany and Canada are announcing new changes to their visa and travel restrictions.

The Australian Government recently announced a number of new measures to support international students:

  • Restarting to issue student visas in locations outside Australia, to make sure they will have their visas when borders re-open, and allow students to (re-)apply free of charge if they cannot complete their studies within their original visa validity due to the pandemic.
  • Giving extra time to applicants to provide English language results where COVID-19 has disrupted access to these services, as well as to do biometric collection and health checks in cases of COVID-19 service disruptions.
  • Relaxing eligibility requirements for a post-study work visa for applicants who are enrolled with an Australian education provider, by recognising online study outside Australia because of COVID 19 as counting towards the Australian Study Requirement, and by allowing eligible graduates to apply for a Temporary Graduate visa outside Australia.

Data shows a decline of 4.7% in international students from March 2020 to June 2020 and across all education sectors in Australia. This is likely due to foreign students not being able to fly back into Australia before the border closure in March.

Canada had initially announced that international students who had a valid study permit or had been approved for a study permit prior to 18 March 2020 would be exempt from travel restrictions. However, in late July, the country issued a partial backtrack on this exceptional treatment. As reported on Canada’s official immigration website, the above group of students would now be exempt from the ban only if they travel for a “non-discretionary or non-optional purpose”, meaning that the students are either:

  • already established, residing and studying in Canada, or
  • expected to begin studying upon arrival, or
  • their physical presence is necessary (as in laboratories or workshops) or
  • if online studying is not an option for their school/programme or from their home country (due to internet restrictions, e.g.)

As it were to be expected, the new regulations caused some initial confusion amongst international students. Some students that were travelling when the changes were announced were stranded and unable to board flights to Canada, causing great concern about their study prospects.

Clearly, various measures are being put in place to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on international student mobility, as prospective students experience a general sense of instability due to the volatility of the situation. Despite sustained efforts, it’s safe to say that for the time being international student mobility is nowhere near likely to go back to “normal”.