Student Exchange grounded for the foreseeable future

In less than ten clicks online, you used to be able to buy a plane ticket to a foreign land and take your education global. Exchange programs are an invaluable resource for students wishing to extend their learning outcomes and experiences. It allows students to study overseas and immerse themselves in new and exciting places.  

Togatus talked to Student Exchange and Study Abroad Coordinater Patrick Donoghue about the current exchange climate. 

Donoghue says that on average, over “100 students are received by the University of Tasmania worldwide each semester through student exchange, and in return, 50 UTAS students travel abroad.”  

The actual student exchange program at UTAS sees far fewer participants compared to the numbers of international students. Though the number of Tasmanian students willing to study overseas is not remarkably high, the program at UTAS is seeking new ways to encourage students to travel.  

Exchange at UTAS has always been a strong and effective component to providing a rich and varied education. Yet in the wake of COVID-19, travel has halted amidst Australia’s border closure and state quarantines, leaving the future of student exchange uncertain. 

“Students will not be sent overseas until we have complete approval,” he said, explaining that it “largely depends on state, national and international borders, as well as health officials.”  

Donoghue explains that the reopening of major airlines such as Qantas will provide the Student Mobility team with a clearer idea of the future of program. UTAS is waiting for the ‘green light’ required for student travel, and with student wellbeing as first concern, only when overseas travel is considered safe and practical will exchange resume.  

The benefits of exchange to the university experience is strongly advocated by Patrick, himself a veteran of a year’s exchange to Ottawa, Canada in 2016.  

“Exchange programs are really a ‘melting pot’ of students from different cultures, coming together for the first time in a completely unique and foreign country,” he says. 

Student exchange helps sustain strong international bonds as well. For countries like China, where a large portion of students choose to study at Australian universities, these academic exchanges prove a valuable resource. He says “it provides a pipeline for studying at universities,” enabling students to immerse themselves in both new and familiar courses, many schools catering to a particular area of study. 

“Study Abroad programs and student exchanges are globally focused, and whilst China is a large country, the focus is on diversity. 

“This means that students from all over the world are able to meet and mingle rather than ‘bulk cohorts’ of one specific nationality. It is precisely this reason that makes exchange programs so unique and special.” 

It is this exciting prospect of a new culture and setting that inspired UTAS student Georgina Newton to participate in an exchange.  

Georgina travelled to the small, vibrant city of Lund in Sweden at the start of the 2020 academic year. This arrangement not only provided her with an exciting travel opportunity but aided her study aspirations as well. 

Currently studying a Bachelor of Science, the partnership between Lund and UTAS was a significant factor in her decision to travel there. Lund is one of the University’s exchange partners within the Faculty of Science, encouraging those with an interest for the subject to exchange there. 

But in March this yearGeorgina’s overseas study came to a sudden halt. As COVID-19 cases continued to surge worldwide, those overseas were forced to make difficult decisions regarding their travel plans. 

“It was such a hard decision to make to come back to Tassie,’’ she told Togatus.  

“The uncertainty of not knowing when we’d be able to come back to Australia made us decide to book our flights home. Most non-European students were either required to come back by their government, university or made the decision to, which helped us decide to make the trip back.”  

This decision to return home is one that Georgina had contemplated for some time. But like many other university students, once borders began to close, there was little choice. 

Now back in Tasmania for the foreseeable future, Georgina continues her Bachelor of Science at UTAS. She describes her short-lived exchange as “such a great way to meet new people and live in a new place while studying at the same time.”  

Though hoping to resume her studies in Sweden, she says “it seems unlikely with the current travel restrictions.”  

For the present, she will stay in Tasmania to finish her degree next year yet remains hopeful that the opportunity to travel and study her masters overseas will be a realistic prospect in the future.  

For many UTAS students that were either recalled back to Tasmania or remain overseas, their student exchange experience has been placed on temporary hold. Though like Georgina, many are continuing their study through online learning or attending their local university, like thousands of other sectors across the world, they too, remain in limbo. 

Once the program resumes, all attention will be diverted to encouraging students to travel. No doubt this lockdown and quarantine has students eagerly awaiting the day where our borders open once again.  

Until then, Patrick Donoghue and his team will be eagerly awaiting a travel update, and as to whether we see student exchange return next year: “we’re keeping our fingers crossed.”