Universities fret over hiring staff with borders shut Down Under

Responsible border control has, ironically, left Australia and New Zealand trailing their competitors

August 5, 2021
A hotel on Middleton Street in Mckinlay, Queensland, where famous scenes of Crocodile Dundee (stylized as Crocodile Dundee in the U.S.) adventure comedy were filmed.
Source: iStock

Universities in Australia and New Zealand fear they will appear less attractive to overseas academics as the region loses its “first-mover advantage” on controlling Covid.

Sally Wheeler, deputy vice-chancellor for international strategy at Australian National University, told Times Higher Education’s THE Live ANZ event that the “absence of a concrete timeline is proving to be very difficult. We’ve always had well-qualified international academics wanting to work in Australia – and that’s becoming much more challenging. That has a knock-on effect on research competitiveness.”

Concerns about academic recruitment continue alongside dramatic drops in overseas student enrolments – and the corresponding loss of millions of dollars of revenue – as learners pick countries with worse Covid outcomes than Australia and New Zealand, but with accessible campuses.

And while foreigners cannot enter the countries, the reverse is also true: Australian students cannot attend overseas study modules, some of which are compulsory, and Australian academics cannot leave to conduct research or attend events. “It’s really hard to keep mobility schemes running – just getting people in and out,” Professor Wheeler said.

“Our first-mover advantage was based on safety – but the international student community has favoured face-to-face education. And that puts us in a difficult position,” Professor Wheeler said, adding that new students will “continue to flood to the UK, US and Canada this September”.

There is a similar problem in New Zealand, where the government is unlikely to issue new visas until at least early 2022.

Jason Cushen, international director of the University of Otago, says that “we can’t overstate the impact on the relationship to our partners globally and the ongoing ability to reach students abroad”.

“There was a shift – from a feeling of safety to a perception that it was difficult, if not impossible, to get in,” he added.

He feared that New Zealand might be missing out on a window of opportunity.

“The concern is that pent-up demand will largely be gone by the time our borders open,” he said. “There is also a loss of capacity – of skills and expertise – that worries me the longer this goes on.”

Dirk Mulder, chief executive of MulderPR, who had previously worked at Australian universities, said that it’s “heartbreaking for Australia and New Zealand to have closed borders”.

The situation “changed very rapidly” from a year ago, when “ANZ was the most desirable place for international students to come to, from a health perspective”.

“The rest of the world appears to be, from an Australian perspective, ‘living with Covid’, and the tables have turned. How does Australia start re-integrating back into the global economy?” he asked.

Michael Rosemann, director of the Centre for Future Enterprise at the Queensland University of Technology, had a more sanguine view.

“Whether you have a first- or second-mover advantage is based on whether you are open and flexible with the digital world,” he said, adding that online conferences have attracted record numbers of attendees this year and cross-national research has continued.

He saw Covid disruptions as a “tipping point to explore new ways of engaging”. 

“Some of our researchers are, for the first time, collecting evidence on a global scale,” he said. “And 10 professors came together to develop one lecture – something that would not have been done two years ago.”  

Professor Rosemann also tried something new himself: teaching a class that was one-third in person, one-third online and one-third viewed on a Netflix-like system.

“That type of system is here to stay,” he said. “Different students have different appetites. Some students want that campus experience, while others consume education the way they consume entertainment.

Still, educators want campus life to resume as soon as possible.

“If all you thought about was face-to-face university since you were 14, it’s really hard,” says Professor Wheeler of ANU. “Foreign students want to enter the country. Domestic students tell us that they go to university to meet people from different backgrounds – and often times, campus is the first time they do.”


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