Big benefits if foreign students return soon

15/06/2020 - 13:17


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The state government will no doubt take comfort from polling that suggests most Western Australians are happy with closed borders.

Many students are seeking to come from countries where COVID-19 remains rampant. Photo: Mikael Kristenson

The state government will no doubt take comfort from polling that suggests Western Australians are generally happy with closed borders.

Most people clearly believe the benefits have far outweighed the costs, and mood is that the government’s early action is a positive example of decisive leadership from which many could learn.

In main, WA’s businesses can manage with border closures and, perhaps, there are even gains to be had with mining workers potentially moving their families here to overcome the challenge of quarantine rules.

But there are isolated pockets of industry that need open borders or, at the very least, some form of special rules to give them access to their markets.

The state is already subsidising flights for high-end exporters such as the lobster industry – an indication it understands the value to the economy of even relatively small sectors like this.

Yet when it comes to international students, the state government seems to have as much of a tin ear around allowing students in as the federal government has had regarding the sector’s access to rescue funds.

While foreign students don’t garner too many votes, the tertiary education sector is huge and, as a major export industry that was once led by Perth-based institutions, has plenty of domestic workers who would reflect Labor’s base.

It is strange their plight is being ignored by the government led by Premier Mark McGowan - at least that's what my industry sources tell me.

Is it just a rehash of the terrible union-led decision to close off the occupations that migrants and temporary visa holders could engage in that was one of McGowan’s earliest policy implementations? That was disaster and took two years to unravel.

This looks like the same policy, version 2.0. In protecting domestic jobs that locals don’t want to do or where the resident workforce is inadequate, we damaged the economy’s ability to respond to good and bad events, such as a boom or a pandemic. We also looked a little xenophobic.

This time around, the state is ignoring the economic damage wrought at a time when we simply can’t turn down such opportunities.

As new StudyPerth analysis shows, international students spend around $450 million a year on housing and related needs. That is staggering and the real estate sector ought to be screaming about the loss of 70,000 renters.

Obviously they buy food and other necessities as well as travel intrastate; and during future years of study, they will attract family as high-spending visitors.

Is there a risk? Yes, many students are seeking to come from countries where COVID-19 remains rampant. But we have hotels lying dormant and have developed a process for quarantine.

It will also get airlines and airport operations ticking over – all the better for a real restart down the track.

Let’s work out a cost-effective way to bring those people here and get them studying. Remember, we don’t just lose a student for six months if we keep them out; we lose them three or four years in many cases. Some of the best we might lose for life.

Right now the UK and the US, both major competitors in this area, are struggling to cope with the disease. Without being too mercenary about it, now is the time to steal a march on our competitors.

Our (near) COVID-free status is not just good for votes, it’s a major lure for families who have money to spend and want a safe place to set up the future of their next generation.

Let’s prove we are creative and innovative, not just being left behind because mining so conveniently pays most of our bills.


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