International student fees contributed just under a third of total revenue for Australia's universities during 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic but experts believe plans to re-introduce students won't be enough to fix the situation for years to come.
The 2019 Financial Report for Higher Education, released Wednesday morning, highlights the heavy reliance on international student fees from the country's 38 universities during the calendar year.
Of the total $36.5 billion revenue generated by universities in 2019, which included $17.8 billion in government funding, $9.9 billion of it came from fees charged to overseas students.
It represents nearly 85 per cent of the sector's total fee revenue - a figure most will not likely reach with the pandemic halting entry into the country back in March.
For Canberra's two universities, Australian National University (ANU) and the University of Canberra (UC), that revenue figure reached nearly $400 million, marking around 22 per cent of their total revenue.
The report shows the sector was in relatively strong shape before COVID-19 unravelled it.
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Nearly nine months later, international travel bans remain in place but a plan for international students to enter the country in order to study is in the works.
Education minister Dan Tehan told Sky News on Monday he was in talks with every state and territory in order to safely bring back international students after Christmas 2020.
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said he was hopeful some international students would arrive in the territory before 2021's first semester but it would remain only a trickle of students until a vaccine arrived.
"The number of students will be limited by available quarantine and aviation capacity," Mr Barr said in a statement.
"Until there is a vaccine, it is unlikely that international students numbers will return to pre-COVID levels."
But Professor Andrew Norton, a higher education expert at Australian National University, said the drastic drop in students throughout 2020 would mean universities would struggle to claw back lost revenue for years to come.
"Even if numbers start returning, say second semester next year, there is what we call a 'pipeline effect'," Professor Norton said.
"The effects will be felt for at least three or four years after things start improving."
The 'pipeline effect' means students who were due to study during 2020 but didn't due to the pandemic would now no longer be second-year students in 2021 and so on.
A UC spokesperson said it was hopeful a return of international students next year, coupled with domestic enrolments, would offer a "slight" improvement to the institution's financial performance.
Similarly, ANU has said it's made nearly 5000 offers to domestic students in 2021 and is hoping to welcome as many international students as it safely can.
The two universities are working together with the ACT government on the details of the plan to bring back students from overseas but it's yet to be finalised or approved.
Until that happens, the revenue drop will remain disastrous, resulting in further job losses and course cuts.
Professor Norton said international student fees helped universities to diversify their budgets and allowed them to spend on areas that didn't generate profits.
Business faculties were most affected by the drop in students but research, sporting facilities and other areas that weren't big money makers also faced the cutting floor.
One saving grace has been the move to online learning for international students, which has helped to improve the universities' financial positions, if only marginally.
"Many more Chinese students who are stuck overseas have been willing to study online than was expected," Professor Norton said.
"Even though it is a very bad year for those universities, it's not quite as bad as they originally thought."
The federal government, Professor Norton added, did little to fix the situation. University staff members were not eligible for the wage subsidies many small businesses received and international students similarly missed out on receiving Jobkeeper and Jobseeker payments.
"[International students] should have been allowed to get Jobkeeper, for example, and that would have meant there were fewer international students in dire poverty," Professor Norton said.
"That would have eased the burden on universities and would have avoided a whole lot of negative publicity for Australia."
The situation is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. While initial vaccine results are promising, it will still take months before they're distributed and that means an early 2021 restart for international students in Australia will only remain small-scale.
"Realistically, until there is a vaccine, we're not going to see things really start getting back to normal," Professor Norton said.
"With our quarantine systems, where you've got to spend two weeks in a hotel, they just cannot cope with those kinds of numbers.
"We're only looking at a trickle of international students coming in via that mechanism."
While it's a bleak outlook for higher education system, like many other sectors ravaged by the pandemic, Professor Norton is confident there will be a strong return to 2019 levels in time.
A growing middle class in Asia has shown it's willing to spend on international education and Australia only needed to capture a portion of it to be successful.
"Australia only has to get a reasonably small percentage of that market to have a big industry by our standards," Professor Norton said.
"Given Australia's got a lot of experience in international education [and] is a very established player globally, I think things will bounce back, maybe not to where they were in 2019 for quite a while, but we could still have a big international education industry."