International students return to Western Australia, but COVID chaos remains

As the international education sector in Western Australia begins to recover, some are questioning whether a COVID-inhibited student experience is still worth the upfront cost.

Being an international student in WA means paying at least $20,000 per year.

Studying nursing would cost upwards of $30,000 a year – for domestic students, after government grants, it costs around $4,000.

After state border restrictions were lifted in March, many were still willing to pour money for a higher education experience immersed in the culture of a new country.

But as their first semester draws to a close, some international students say they are still bearing the brunt of the chaos.

Students return, but for a different experience

The number of international students has risen sharply since the border opened, according to Edith Cowan University’s assistant vice-chancellor for education, Angela Hill.

Angela Hill said the university has implemented several virtual solutions to support returning international students.(ABC News: Cason Ho)

“When there was a delay in opening the border, some students had to change their plans,” she said.

“But we were really pleased with the number of students who were able to return. International students enrich our campuses in many ways and enrich the student experience as a whole.”

Although it will take some time for a full recovery, Professor Hill is confident they are on the right path.

It’s a similar story at the University of Western Australia, where enrollment for the first semester of this year was nearly 80% of pre-COVID levels.

But university students have returned to a very different study experience than before the pandemic.

Portraits of three people with contemplative expressions side by side.
International students of Curtin Hameed Mohammad, Sofia Gonzalez Torres and Dhanya Shri Vimalan.(ABC News: Cason Ho)

Dhanya Shri Vimalan started her undergraduate degree in 2020, just as COVID was starting to hit the headlines.

“When COVID hit, I felt like I got less support,” she said.

“I was a close contact…I had to self-isolate for seven days. I couldn’t work for a week.

“Because I’m an international student, I haven’t had any of the benefits that permanent residents or citizens get here.

“My mum studied in Perth, Murdoch, when she was growing up. I guess that’s a little sad. I wanted to have that full university experience.”

For Hameed Mohammad, a postgraduate nursing student, dealing with constant disruptions in his practice placements has become his new normal.

“My roommate tested positive… as a close contact [you] can’t go to work in the hospital,” he said.

“As an international student, when you do a health degree, you do an internship.

“When you become COVID positive, your practice will be delayed…it impacts your visa, it impacts your studies.”

Three students sat in a lecture hall with a large screen behind them.
Although the studies of many international students have resumed, disruptions are still common.(ABC News: Cason Ho)

Sofia Gonzalez Torres is the chair of Curtin University’s international student committee and said the information on student support was unclear.

“We were supposed to be supported by the government and universities when we came here because the borders had just opened,” she said.

“I feel like new international students get a bit of support, but current international students don’t get any at all.”

Embrace the new normal

Curtin University lecturer Renee Ralph was an international student herself and said she sympathizes with current students.

Dark-haired woman with a happy look on her face gazes into the trees.
Renee Ralph was an international student from Singapore and studied at UWA.(ABC News: Cason Ho)

“It’s harder to get them the information they need to absorb,” Dr. Ralph said.

Dr Ralph said it was unfortunate there was so much disruption, but he hoped universities and international students would adapt.

“For those who were online from Southeast Asia, the language barrier was there. You had to be a little more patient and articulate [with] themes,” she said.

Two women smile as they pose next to each other for a photo on the beach.
International student Manekha Balgobin said she found the transition to online learning easy.(Provided)

Mankeha Balgobin is an international student in one of Dr. Ralph’s classes who has embraced the shift to virtual learning.

After moving from Mauritius to Perth over two years ago to study, Ms Balgobin was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and moved to Sydney to be with her family.

But the e-learning programs already in place thanks to COVID have allowed her to continue her studies uninterrupted over 3,000 kilometers away.

“I feel like the transition from face-to-face to web was really easy for me,” she said.

“I was more focused on my studies when I was doing them online than face to face.”

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