What does the Coronavirus mean for RTOs in Australia?

Posted on Mar 02, 2020

At the beginning of the month, the Department of Health released their latest advice to RTOs in relation to the outbreak of the coronavirus. Currently, more than 100,000 Chinese students are missing the start of their university and TAFE classes in Australia due to travel bans.

At the beginning of the month, the Department of Health released their latest advice to RTOs in relation to the outbreak of the coronavirus. Currently, more than 100,000 Chinese students are missing the start of their university and TAFE classes in Australia due to travel bans. Restrictions have been placed on students and staff who have travelled to the Hubei Province in China within the past 14 days, and it results in 14-day isolation after leaving the area. 

Additionally, those who have been in close contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus will also need to be isolated for the same duration. This means students and staff should not attend college and must avoid all contact with other students and members of staff. 

Federal Government banned people arriving from (and transferring through) mainland China from entering Australia. February usually sees the start of classes, but this travel ban has thrown the education sector into chaos. 

How many students are missing?

Approximately 105,800 Chinese students will miss the opening weeks of classes of their first semester. This is an important time for learners as they acclimatise to their courses and start to meet people and settle in. As we approach the end of the month, it isn’t clear when the ban will end as the coronavirus is yet to be contained.

Monash University delayed the start of their first semester by two weeks while other universities stuck to their schedules. However, there has been an overall commitment to providing as much support as possible, and this has been implemented through flexibility. Students affected by the travel ban could be given alternative study arrangements, extended visas, and new dates to complete studies and exams.

What exactly is the Coronavirus?

It is actually a new strain of the coronavirus, named ‘COVID-19’ by the World Health Organisation (WHO). It has become a global public health emergency. As of 23 February, there have been over 79,000 confirmed cases of this flu-like infection, with more than 2,600 people dying as a result. 

Key information about the virus:

  • All deaths except 27 have occurred in mainland China

  • Hubei Province (the epicentre of the outbreak) reported 2,495 of the deaths

  • Other countries who have confirmed fatalities include Japan, France, Hong Kong, Italy, Iran, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines

  • The Australian Department of Health have calculated that 3% of infected people will die from it within China but 1% will outside of China

  • Australia’s first diagnosed case was January 25

  • Currently, 22 people in Australia have been diagnosed with the virus: six in Victoria, eight in Queensland, four in NSW, three in South Australia and one in Western Australia

  • The coronavirus has reached 32 countries and territories so far

  • It is thought to spread by ‘respiratory droplets’ from the infected person (these are the little secretions we make through sneezing or coughing)

  • The majority of cases are directly and indirectly linked to an illegal wildlife market in Wuhan (the capital of the Hubei Province)

  • Symptoms are flu-like with minor ailments such as sore throat, coughing, fatigue, through to major ailments such as difficulty breathing

  • In severe cases, the virus can cause pneumonia (infection of one or both lungs) which then results in death for certain individuals 

  • Other serious side effects include septic shock, respiratory distress or failure, virus-induced cardiac injury, acute kidney injury and secondary bacterial pneumonia

  • People should take the same precautionary actions that would avoid catching the flu (washing hands, avoid touching face, cleaning surfaces, and so on)

  • There is no 100% effective treatment for this virus, but antiviral medication can be used to treat influenzas A and B, as well as HIV, or antibiotics used for bacterial infections

  • Australian scientists and others around the world are currently working hard to find a vaccine.

The role of international students in the Australian education sector

Coming back to the impact on the Australian education sector, we know that international students are absolutely essential to the economy. It is the country’s third-largest export, and many will want to ensure that travel bans and restrictions do not cause long-term problems. 

Universities Australia Chair Professor Deborah Terry said in a statement, “To our students still in China – our care, concern and empathy are with you”. RTOs will want to be focused on reducing disruption to studies and protect the overall reputation of the education sector. Sending the right message is vital and appearing ‘open for business’ is of the utmost importance. 

The Federal Government have commented that they remain optimistic that the coronavirus will not result in long-lasting issues for Australia’s TAFEs and universities, and that there can be a swift and immediate bounce-back across the country. Each situation will need to be explored before tuition fee refunds are issued, but everything will depend on the coming days, weeks and even months. 

How are RTOs and students being supported now?

ASQA has commented on the challenges posed by the coronavirus and also offers reassurance for VET providers, their staff and students. Saxon Rice (Chief Commissioner and CEO) stated that ASQA is working with other Australian Government departments to learn and share updated information for providers and their students. They are also a point of contact if providers are impacted by the situation and will offer additional support as required. 

Ways ASQA are facing compliance arrangements include:

  • Allowing providers to extend online or distance components of courses for impacted overseas students (during the first half of 2020)

  • Offering similar measures where extensions are not suitable

  • Not pursuing regulatory action again providers in this situation

  • Requesting all adaptive measures are documented in the relevant students’ records

  • Allowing actions to be recorded that are ‘technical non-compliance’ with the National Code and the Standards for RTOs, for example:

  • student ‘attendance’

  • limitations of course delivery online

  • variations to documented delivery strategies

  • other areas where action is required that could be seen as non-compliance

  • Understanding that challenges will vary and take different forms and promising to work with providers on a case-by-case basis to minimise the impact to both the organisation and the students

  • Encouraging RTOs to make contact with any queries and providing information as required on the Info Line: 1300 701 801 or at enquiries@asqa.gov.au

Looking to the future

Clearly, there is a level anxiety surrounding this strain of the coronavirus and the potential for it to spread. However, scientists, government officials and embassy representatives are reassuring us that it is not cause to panic or overreact. Flu is commonplace and does not immediately indicate coronavirus. Tests are being conducted daily and the majority show negative results. Organisations are well-prepared, and if you take the necessary precautionary actions and avoid travelling to and from China, then you will help the current situation. The picture hasn’t completely developed yet, but looking to the future shows no major concern for RTOs and the overall Australian education sector.