Australian universities’ broken Covid promises won’t be forgotten

Two years of low-quality online provision has left one stranded international student homeless, unemployed and heartbroken

January 29, 2022
A welcome to Australia sign illustrating opinion article about international students in Australia
Source: iStock

As an international student, I applied with great excitement to study at a well-regarded Australian university in 2020. As a mature student who had had a career in global trade, I chose Australia for a combination of economic reasons, its relative proximity to my own country and its excellent handling of Covid up to that point.

After the university promised we should be on campus by early 2021, I took the plunge and invested most of my life savings. The opening date was later pushed back to the middle of 2021, but it was stated that the state and federal governments would add quarantine space and set out contingency plans to deal with Covid, allowing certain population groups, such as international students, to be welcomed back. Many clung to that promise, including myself. 

In the meantime, we were paying upwards of A$38,000 (£20,000) in annual fees to study online. The quality was terrible. Some lecturers and library staff were unwilling to assist us or did not respond to emails at all. Some lecturers switched off lessons as soon as they had finished talking, permitting no questions to be asked. Some lecturers could not use Teams or neglected to turn on their cameras. Others decided to cut classes entirely, with the excuse that the university was not an online institution. When the lectures did take place, they were sometimes at 3am my time.

No labs, library access or field trips were offered to overseas students, despite our being constantly made aware of all the discounts, funding, activities, field trips and hands-on experience that the on-campus students were receiving – funded partly by our excessive international fees. Yet most of us, myself included, did not complain, for fear of backlash from lecturers and being denied access to learning material.

In mid-2021, our return to campus was pushed back again, and my annual A$5,000 international scholarship was removed after I upgraded from a bachelor's to a master’s degree in the same field. I started to see fellow students making the difficult decision to defer their studies due to economic and health hardships. Others decided to switch to institutions in countries such as the UK and Canada, where international students were welcomed back with open arms or offered heavily discounted fees if they continued online.

I also started seeing friends receiving online backlash when they spoke up about wanting to enter Australia. All of us had lost friends and family, yet we were treated like viruses that wanted to infect Australians. All we wanted was a safe entry plan. All double-dosed students were willing to quarantine.

Even when international students formed a working group to constructively engage with the university and government on how to improve education quality and bring us back safely, progress was mixed. Class times were improved and, impressively, the university quickly built learning centres in China. But they were no help to me personally and I resolved to seek education opportunities elsewhere.

The problem was that my online degree credits would apparently not be transferable to the universities I contacted in the UK and Canada. So I was stuck in an online limbo, forced to study in a state and a country that didn’t want me, at a university that didn't make any effort to take up the slack.

Two years on, neither the state nor the university has implemented plans to deal with pandemic. The university has again lured students with the false promise of open borders, but Australian universities still do not have quarantine facilities or a plan to deal with Covid outbreaks. We’re still in he said, she said territory, with the university shrugging and saying it is the governments’ fault, and vice versa.

My state’s recent, last-minute border re-closure has left me unemployed (having quit my job to move to Australia), homeless (having given up the lease on my house ) and transportless (I sold my car and there is no public transport near my temporary accommodation). The removal of my scholarship has also pushed me into debt.

I will most likely finish my studies in Australia if and when I can. However, I will never forget the lack of planning and compassion from the universities and government for international students – and indeed students more generally. I will never forget the anxiety and fear we endured due to this gross incompetence.

Vice-chancellors and politicians have stolen international students’ education and, in some cases, even our livelihoods by allowing bad politics masked as health advice to prevail. I am heartbroken.

The writer is a master’s student at an Australian university.

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