Local university students in Australia have been profoundly affected as they are unable to fulfil their plans to undertake a learning experience outside of Australia. 

By Dimity Huckel, Davina Potts and Keri Ramirez


As travel bans emerged, thousands of Australian students returned home from overseas institutions. The next cohorts of outbound students have adjusted their study plans to deal with the challenges of the new global environment. Many Australian students choose their university degree based on opportunities to study abroad[1]


Impact in Learning Abroad  An essential area which requires additional attention

  This will affect their study experience and future employability.


One of the most successful stories in the Australian international education sector was the impressive level of university student participation and institutional engagement in Learning Abroad. In 2013, Julie Bishop spoke of her aspiration for study in Asia to become ‘a rite of passage for young Australians’. By 2018, more than 52,000 university students travelled abroad to participate in a study experience to enhance their Australian degree.


This successful story is the result of combined government and institutional efforts to provide students in Australia the opportunity to study abroad with the aim to broaden their personal and professional perspectives as part of their degree. For institutions, learning abroad is a core part of internationalisation strategies, and a visible contribution of our international education investment to local communities.


Chart 1. Number of International Study Experience 2009-2020 (with estimates for 2019 and 2020)

 Source: Using data from the Australian University International Directors' Forum (AUIDF) from 2009 to 2018 and estimates or 2019 and 2020 to illustrate the probable impact of COVID-19.


But as we know, this student cohort has been dramatically impacted this year. Due to travel bans created by COVID-19, the number of students in Learning Abroad programs will be close to zero and if this trend continues next year, Australian universities may see up to 100,000 students unable to participate in a Learning Abroad experience in 2020 and 2021 (Chart 1).



Domino Effect in Learning Abroad  The Domino Effect

  Study experience, employability, and gender gap


Unfortunately, we might see the first generation of university students unable to access Learning Abroad experiences in decades. This domino effect has consequences that reach beyond a missed overseas travel experience.


This is going to affect the overall student experience and it will result in a domino effect which is going to have a lasting impact on career outcomes and overall employability goals which are evident in research previously conducted by IEAA [2]


In addition, the group which will be most affected is women. Historically, student participation in Learning Abroad has been predominantly female and travel restrictions may adversely affect their career development in the future. According to a study from PwC, enterprises across the world are using international mobility experiences to develop future leaders and advance the careers of key talent. Yet despite unprecedented demand, women currently only account for 20% of international assignees [3].


Social and workplace barriers often mean women are overlooked for international assignments. Experience living abroad as a student can demonstrate motivation and commitment to future employers at critical times in their careers. 


Analysis of Student Preferences in Learning Abroad  The Survey

  Measuring students view during COVID-19


To better understand the impact of COVID-19 and provide relevant intelligence to the higher education sector, a time series study was developed with the support of IEAA and 25 Australian universities. During the month of September, we asked university students about their views and plans regarding future opportunities to undertake a learning experience abroad as part of their degree.


Overall, the aim was to discover if the current health emergency will change the plans of students enrolled at Australian universities to undertake Learning Abroad experiences in 2021. The study asked students how the COVID-19 pandemic may or may not impact their overall study experience and future employability goals if they are unable to access international study experiences in 2021. We received more than 1,000 student responses in a period of two weeks.




How important is Learning Abroad to students in Australia  How important is Learning Abroad to students in Australia?

  Australian students value learning abroad experiences


The results of the student survey reveal that university students greatly value the opportunity of undertaking an international experience as part of their degree. Based on the responses received, 84% of students consider the opportunity to study abroad as “Fairly and Very Important”.


The analysis also shows that students acknowledge the importance of Learning Abroad in developing their employability skills with 55% considering that an international study experience as part of their degree is “Fairly and Very Important” in building employability skills (Chart 2).


Chart 2. How important to you is it that an international study experience offers you the opportunity to build your employability skills?




Learning Abroad in 2021  Future plans

  Students plan to study abroad in 2021 but are adjusting their plans


Despite the uncertainty of COVID-19, there is still strong interest among university students to undertake a Learning Abroad experience in the future. From the total student responses, 56% indicated that they would still like to travel outside of Australia and undertake a study experience abroad (Chart 3).


Chart 3. Future plans to study overseas


The results of the survey also show that students are adjusting their plans under the new COVID-19 environment. More than half of the students indicated that they will now consider undertaking an international study experience in a country with low levels of COVID-19 to order to feel safe.


Virtual Global Experiences  Virtual Experiences

  Students need more information and convincing!


Virtual global experiences were embraced by many universities as a response to travel restrictions in 2020. The survey asked university students their opinion regarding virtual experiences as a possible alternative option and the responses varied depending at what university the student is studying at.


Overall, 54% of students were not aware of the possibility of undertaking a virtual global experience as part of their degree however as illustrated in Chart 4, the level of awareness is significantly different across all participating universities.


Chart 4. Awareness of virtual experiences across participating universities




Domino Effect in Learning Abroad  Final Remarks

  The student experience of the world is changing rapidly thanks to COVID-19


As we continue to navigate the complicated wave of COVID-19, we hope that this survey and resulting analysis will assist universities in developing their Learning Abroad strategies for 2021.


The Australian higher education system is one of the most international systems in the world and Learning Abroad is a vital part of the study experience of many Australian university students. There is still a chance to look for alternative paths and opportunities which will provide access to international study experiences in 2021.


We still have a lot to learn about how we may be able to create safe travel bubbles and virtual experiences which will enhance the personal and professional development of our university students.


For that reason, we will continue the conversation within the higher education sector and will launch the second round of this study in November. We invite universities to participate in this important study again in November.


Contact us if you need more information about this study


Note: We would like to thank the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) for supporting this project and participating organisations and members of the Steering Committee of this project for providing valuable information and documentary sources for the development of this study. Special thanks to Rebecca Cozens, Amanda Daly, Emily O’Callaghan Davina Potts and Linda Rust for sharing their expertise to enhance the development of this study.


[1] Lawrence, R. (2013), ‘Student research results to inform the new Colombo promotional campaign, Universities Australia (p 13)

[2] Potts, D. (2020), ‘Career outcomes of learning abroad: national report’, International Education Association of Australia (IEAA). Retrieved from www.ieaa.org.au.

[3] Flood, A (2016), ‘Modern mobility: Moving women with purpose’ Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC). Retrieved from https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/diversity-inclusion/assets/moving-women-with-purpose.pdf’