Conversation: Stephen Connelly, Director, i-graduate Australia & GlobalEd Services

International education is one of Australia’s greatest export successes of recent years.  But it was also one of the earliest and most significantly impacted industries of the pandemic crisis.  We talked with one of the most experienced participants in sector, Stephen Connelly to get a sense of where things are now and the possible way forward.


International education was one of the first casualties of the pandemic; for those not across all the numbers, can you give us an update on the impact?

Directly and indirectly, international education is worth about $40b annually to the Australian economy, representing 250,000 jobs. This year as a result of the pandemic there could be a downturn of up to $10b, with around half of that in fees. The impact will continue in 2021 because of the flow on effect of lower continuing students and with the 2021 commencing cohort likely to be significantly reduced compared with previous years.


Naturally we hear a lot about Australia, but how has international education fared in the rest of the world?

The impact in Australia was felt earlier as the pandemic hit just as southern hemisphere academic years were getting under way and before a lot of students could travel to Australia to either commence or return.

The immediate impact on northern hemisphere universities had less to do with the commencing cohort and more to do with supporting the continuing cohort. The major intake in the northern hemisphere is August through to October depending on the country, so that's when institutions in major destination countries like US, UK, Canada and Germany will feel the impact.

The other immediate impact globally was on exchange or study abroad students.  They were away from home temporarily at the time the pandemic hit and having to figure out whether or how to complete their studies before returning home. 


What do you see as the long-term outlook? Will we ever get back to the pre-pandemic levels in Australia?

Student interest (demand, if you will) in international study, both degree-seeking and short-term experiences, remains high globally but it is difficult to tell if or when the world will get back to the record levels of 2019.

A lot of service providers to institutions have suffered significantly around the world, many staff have been shed and companies are going out of business. Universities in Australia are now starting to talk about staff cuts. Plans are underway to bring international students back to Australia in an organised manner that minimises pandemic-related risk. This includes testing this in July by bringing in small cohorts under agreements being negotiated with the federal and state governments.


If you were sitting back in your role as Deputy Vice Chancellor International, what would your priorities be at the moment? Where are the greatest challenges?

Issues to manage would include: supporting the international cohort currently studying, both in the switch to online learning and in terms of their financial and life circumstances; supporting your own students out on exchange, study abroad or study tours and case managing each student to complete their experience and/or come home.

Naturally, you are going to have to deal with the major revenue hit for 2020 and the budget implications; forward planning for semesters 2/2020 and 1/2021 to try to understand ongoing and future impacts and whether or not a small cohort of students can arrive in July 2020.

Finally, there is the impact on staff work and lives, supporting working from home, implementing budget, salary, leave, work-fraction measures to manage the budget impact while still getting work done and maintaining a team to be ready to come out the other side.


Is there any silver lining to the events of the past four months? Have there been any unexpected winners?

Competitor countries like the US and UK don't look great as destinations for international students right now, so Australia and NZ will be very attractive options in early 2021 if current trends here in reduction of virus spread continue.

Any organisation in the online recruitment, teaching, student support and learning abroad spaces that was already geared up before the pandemic is now doing very well, while everyone else is playing catch up. Service providers that manage to remain going concerns over the next 6 months will benefit from competitors going out of business, unfortunately a harsh reality of current circumstances!


About Stephen Connelly

Stephen has worked in international education for 30 years, including at La Trobe, Swinburne and RMIT universities. His roles have included Pro Vice Chancellor (International) and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International and Development).  He is now Director of i-graduate Australia, managing that company’s activities in Australia through his consulting firm, GlobalEd Services. Stephen was President of International Education Association of Australia and is Chair of the Finance Committee of the International Student Exchange Program board of directors, based in the USA. He received the IEAA Distinguished Contribution Award in 2016.


Rohan A. Carr
June 2020

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