Director Ben Bonjean made the call earlier this year to temporarily close the company’s Brisbane and Perth campuses due to low numbers while staff numbers have dropped from 110 to 48.

“Normally at this time of year, across the three colleges, we would have 1400 students,” he said.

“Unlike universities we don’t cater for the domestic market. So when you close the borders you reduce your pool of business to essentially what is onshore.”

Gary Coonar, director of the Melbourne City Institute of Education, says its English language school would normally have around 550 students but has just 70.

Gary Coonar, director of the Melbourne City Institute of Education, says its English language school would normally have around 550 students but has just 70.Credit: Jason South

Gary Coonar, managing director of the Melbourne City Institute of Education, said the organisation’s language school had been running at a loss since May and was being propped by its VET school, which caters predominantly to domestic students.

“We are down to about 70 students at the moment [at the English school]. Around this time we would have been expecting 550-600 students,” he said.

“If no new students come in by February-March next year, we’ll be down to around 10 students. It’s going to be devastating.”

Brett Blacker, chief executive of peak body English Australia, said the industry was surviving on JobKeeper support but the outlook is “dire” with the government payments due to end in March.

“We will almost certainly see widespread closures if there is no further support when JobKeeper ends,” he said.

Department of Education data shows ELICOS enrolments have declined 30 per cent from January to October, compared to the same time last year, but the peak body said this only accounted for ELICOS-specific visas.

Based on a survey of 112 of its members, English Australia estimates a 74 per cent decline in enrolments between July and September compared with 2019 once other visa classes, such as tourist visas, were factored in. Eight providers reported no enrolments over that period.

Education agent Melanie Macfarlane is redirecting some clients to Canada, which has opened its borders to international students, in a bid to ensure the survival of her business after students began asking for refunds due to the uncertainty over Australia’s borders.

“We’ve got some students who have even had their Australian visas granted who have become so frustrated they are saying ‘I want to go somewhere and I want to go there soon’,” Ms Macfarlane said.

In a normal year, her migration education agency, which has offices across Colombia, Mexico and Chile, would send around 2000 Latin American students to Australia to study intensive English courses or VET courses.

But she said enrolments had plummeted by 90 per cent, leaving them with 200 students in the pipeline.

“Of those 200 students, we’re looking at 150 to go to Canada and 50 still to come to Australia,” Ms Macfarlane said.

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said the government had waived fees for registered ELICOS providers and was working with states and territories “on the resumption of international education, once we have prioritised the return of Australians.”

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