Federation University has just five new international students enrolled to start the 2021 tertiary year, just a fraction of the number who studied in Ballarat just two years ago.
University vice chancellor Professor Duncan Bentley said in 2019 there were 635 international students studying at Federation University's Ballarat campuses, with about half that number in 2020.
Last year Professor Bentley revealed that COVID and the drop in international students would make a $40 million hole in the university's finances. International students contribute about 60 per cent of the institution's fee revenue.
He was hopeful the number of new international students to start the year would grow to around 20 in Ballarat, with around 400 other international students who had remained in Australia completing their second and third years.
Until the widespread rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine program in Australia and overseas, Professor Bentley said it was unlikely Australian universities would welcome any more than a handful of international students as part of pilot quarantine programs.
But he believed Federation University and other regional universities were in a strong position to offer quarantine programs for international students who met certain criteria.
"If we've got large numbers coming we would be very comfortable, with proper training by the health department, to use our student accommodation (for quarantine) which is purpose built to provide secure living, to keep student safe," he said.
"It's better than a hotel; you can secure the floors, and it isn't right in the middle of town. Plus the students have a vested interest in making quarantine work. They have a commitment to making it work so they are not going to start dashing out in to the community or they will be deported."
He said international students would also likely need a digital health passport to come to Australia to study.
"When the time comes and the vaccine is widespread, we have the digital health passports and we are ready to move to larger numbers Australia will be in a very good position to be able to be part of that.
"As the vaccine rolls out as things become clearer, it will become easier."
But he could not see any potential trial of quarantine for international students taking place before at least October when the local vaccine roll-out is scheduled to be completed.
"If the vaccine is done in October there's certainly no reason whatsoever that in the second part of the year we couldn't have a pilot and if that goes well, we can have a fairly rapid throughput and get to larger numbers before the end of the year ... but again it all depends on the vaccine roll-out and regulations."
Federation University is one of dozens of universities across the country working with state and federal governments on how international students - a critical cog in the state and national economies - can safely return to Australia.
Professor Bentley warned that many international students would look to study in countries like Canada, where there are fewer restrictions on incoming international students despite the pandemic.
The university is also looking at ways to claw back some of the income lost from the inability of international students to travel to Ballarat and the university's other campuses.
"What we are really trying to do is focus on ways to grow what we are doing ... and working with industry and businesses to see how they might grow through up-skilling and re-skilling that we can provide," he said.
"If we can find other forms of income generation we can redeploy people who are not as busy in to those areas and focus on that at the moment.
"We are examining how we can really grow our education and learning and research in different ways so we can keep all of our people."
IN OTHER NEWS
Most universities across the country have been forced to make large-scale job cuts to survive the pandemic but Professor Bentley said Federation University had so far not needed to make mass redundancies.
"We had a number of people who decided to retire early, or that it was time to move on, and that was last year. This year of course as our financials become clearer we will be able to see how we can maintain our students and focus on ways to grow.:
"There are always a few changes planned here and there where people are made redundant and that's part of ordinary ongoing operations of the university but they have been very few and at this stage it's been optional."
While international student numbers have dropped dramatically, interest from domestic students has grown with a 13 per cent increase in applications for study in 2021 with particularly strong growth in education and nursing.
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