“There’s more potential to impact on enrolments in the medium to long term,” Mr Honeywood said, calling for a renewed Australian tourism campaign and “meaningful resources behind the international education sector to help it overcome this potential reputation hit”.
The sector’s concerns will be up for discussion at a roundtable meeting convened by Education Minister Dan Tehan in Canberra on Wednesday. The gathering will look at concerns about the impact of bushfires throughout education, including early childhood and schools.
Mr Tehan said the government was moving to support the international education sector.
“We are also monitoring the situation and developing a communications strategy to let the world know that Australia is open for business and continues to offer a world-leading education,” he said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison personally intervened this week to get the United States to tone down its travel advice warning about travel to Australia.
Mr Morrison has addressed the issue of travel advice with multiple world leaders and said “there is a bit of a false perception overseas that the entire continent has been affected and that’s obviously not true”.
Mr Honeywood said inaccurate maps and representations of the bushfires online had shaped students’ concerns and the government would soon be promoting a more accurate map to address the misinformation.
While only a tiny number of education providers have been directly threatened by bushfires, the smoke haze has emerged as a particular concern among many Asian students and their families. Institutions have been forced to tackle concerns expressed by the overseas education agents that send the vast majority of students.
“It’s a competitive marketplace. Obviously if they can send people to Canada or elsewhere, perceptions of smoke haze will play into decisions they make,” Mr Honeywood said.
“It’s on international media,” said Ahmed Ademoglu, national president of the Council of International Students Australia.
“We have international students who are worried about what’s going on in Australia … I think some of the worry is the air pollution. People have seen the pictures of the red sky.”
Australia has experienced explosive growth in international education over recent years, with more than 700,000 students enrolled in October last year, the majority in higher education. International education was worth $34 billion to the economy in 2018.
Responding to the bushfire crisis, universities have been providing advice to their domestic and international student populations. The universities of Sydney and Wollongong were both forced to close some of their satellite campuses due to fire danger and the Australian National University closed its main campus in early January because of the heavy smoke.
David Coleman, an immigration lawyer, said the bushfire season had become a concern and could harm Australia as a migration destination.
“I don’t think they’d be so much concerned about being burnt, but if you’re migrating from Beijing you might be migrating because you want to get away from the pollution, but now there’s a lot of pollution in Sydney too,” he said.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Nick is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.
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