My contributions to this page are normally an economic commentary, and over the years I have not really spoken about anything relating to my "day job" at the University of Wollongong.
Today I am making an exception to talk about international students, but I will stick to the spirit of the column by talking about their contribution to the local economy.
This week Prime Minister Scott Morrison put out a couple of massive messages that sent all universities into a spin, following on from the opening up of a travel bubble with Singapore which took us by surprise.
The travel bubble means that any Singaporean student who is offshore, properly vaxxed, holds a student visa and can get on a commercial flight can come here to study - without the need to quarantine. We are almost back to some semblance of normality.
Mr Morrison also revealed that similar travel bubbles would open up with South Korea and Japan before Christmas, so South Korean and Japanese students can also soon make their way to Australia and enter without the need to quarantine.
The Prime Minister said Australia would be trying to get students back "as soon as possible" without quarantine.
This is critical for the Illawarra because it means that international students can start returning to UOW.
In 2019 UOW hosted about 11,000 international students in the region - roughly one-quarter of our total student body. Today, the number has halved - fewer than 5500 students.
In 2019 UOW hosted about 11,000 international students in the region - roughly one-quarter of our total student body. Today, the number has halved - fewer than 5500 students. This is not just a tragedy for the students and the university, but also a tragedy for our local region. Let's start with the economy.
In 2019, international education was Australia's third largest export after iron ore and coal, generating revenue of some $40 billion. Students also provided cultural diversity, and diversity in the classroom which increased the educational experience for everyone. Students also provided labour for our industries, particularly in hospitality, transport and retail. I have heard from quite a few restaurateurs who say they cannot open properly because they can't get the labour they need. There are plenty of jobs in hospitality and retail at the moment that cannot be filled - a gap in the labour market that students could fill nicely.
Sadly, last year, the evaporation of international students resulted in UOW letting go many of our staff. I have been in the university sector for more than 30 years, and never thought I would see the day that this would happen. But it happened.
International students contribute to the local economy in so many other ways.
Think about it. Two years ago we had 5500 international students at UOW that we don't have today. Those students had to be housed, paying rent of up to $15,000 per year; fed, spending $40 a day or up to $15,000 per year; and entertained and transported, spending up to $10,000 per year. Each student probably spent around $40,000 per annum on rent, food, entertainment, transportation and everything else they needed. Across 5500 students that's $220 million per year being spent in the local region. That is the reality of what we have missed.
But it doesn't stop there. Economists like me often talk about a "multiplier effect". When you spend one dollar, you create employment or income for someone else, who in turn then spends another dollar. So one dollar of expenditure ends up creating many further dollars of employment income and expenditure.
If we conservatively say that every dollar spent by an international student creates two dollars of jobs and further expenditure, then the contribution of those 5500 students that we no longer have to the local economy was close to $440 million per year. To put that into perspective, that revenue created something like 6500 jobs in the region outside the university.
But it's not just about the dollars. The genuine cultural diversity that students bring enhances the whole community - think about the students you have chatted with as they worked in a restaurant, bar or shop. The enhanced learning experience that they bring in the classroom is also amazing. Further, students from India, China, Vietnam and all the other many countries that the university educates go back to their countries and become ambassadors for the Illawarra region. So you see, international students are not just important to the university, they are critical to the entire region. Let's welcome them back with open arms in the next few months.
Alex Frino is Professor of Economics and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global Strategy) at the University of Wollongong.