Dozens of principals representing some of Victoria's most expensive private schools have written to the Andrews government to plead for the urgent return of international students, warning of cutbacks and closures if the ban isn't lifted soon.
In their letter, the principals of 36 schools say the disruption to Victoria's multibillion-dollar international student market this year poses an "immediate existential challenge" that has left many non-government schools without a "vital revenue stream".
Principal Elisabeth Lenders of Kingswood College.Credit:Chris Hopkins
While the federal government controls the nation's borders, the letter calls for the state government to work with the non-government school sector to develop plans for the entry of students no later than the start of the 2021 school year.
Some schools face potential closure and significant job losses, if international student enrolments do not recover, the principals say.
"The significance of international education stretches far beyond its direct export value alone, with international students and their families making a significant contribution to the broader economy," the letter states.
Victoria recorded 28 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, and three deaths. Some low-risk restrictions will ease on September 28 but restrictions for gatherings, visitors, hospitality or sport will remain for months under the government's road map out of lockdown.
The letter also warned about broader challenges as more parents face financial pressures, saying "a decline in domestic enrolments because of COVID-19 will see many schools face immense immediate financial challenges, with closures likely for some".
Premier Daniel Andrews indicated on Tuesday that Victoria would not resume taking international arrivals until November, raising concerns international student numbers will fall further in 2021.
Victoria has more international school students than any other state or territory, with more than 9500 enrolled in 2018, primarily from China, Vietnam and Cambodia.
The group of principals said if international programs did not survive, the jobs of academic and support staff were at immediate risk and there would be significant losses at English language schools and accommodation providers.
"Without action to facilitate the safe entry of international school students to Victoria, student health and wellbeing will suffer; industry, sector and school reputational damage will be long lasting; and the broader economy will experience devastating negative impacts, including significant job losses from schools and service providers," the letter states.
Signatories include the principals of Geelong Grammar, Melbourne Grammar, Methodist Ladies College, Brighton Grammar, St Catherine's School and Lauriston Girls' School.
Kingswood College principal Elisabeth Lenders is among the signatories, and said the Box Hill coeducational school had already lost its mid-year intake of students from China due to the pandemic.
The second wave of coronavirus infections in Victoria had also cost schools time in their efforts to attract overseas students next year, Ms Lenders said.
"It’s going to be much much harder in Victoria than it would be if we were in Sydney or Perth because of our rates of infection," she said.
“It’s a very competitive market in Australia. Victoria has always done very well but I suspect this will be a brutal blow to us for at least a few years."
Another signatory, Dr Andrew Hirst of Hamilton and Alexandra College in western Victoria, said Australia had become a preferred destination for many students from south-east Asia due to its effective handling of the pandemic relative to the UK or the US.
"We just don't know how any of them will be able to arrive," Dr Hirst said.
A spokesman for the Department of Education said it had convened a "cross-sectoral working group, with representatives from schools with international student programs from government, Catholic and independent schools, to provide advice and develop additional support for international students and the schools that host them".
“The education continuity, welfare and wellbeing of our international students remains our highest priority."
Victoria's 31 boarding schools have become increasingly reliant on international students and some have chosen to stay open over the school holidays rather than lose international students to coronavirus border closures.
Some Victorian boarding schools will stay open over the Christmas holidays to house international students.
Boarding schools are also looking at setting up quarantine hubs in Queensland and the Northern Territory so students can attend Australian boarding schools in 2021.
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