The number of international students applying to study at Australian universities plunged while borders remained closed, new data shows.
International student recruitment marketplace Adventus found that applications for Australian universities from international students have dropped 51 per cent since March this year.
The latest government figures for November show there are currently 259,752 student visa holders in Australia, more than half of whom are in higher education or postgraduate research.
The figures show there are still 148,464 student visa holders outside of Australia.
Universities Australia Deputy Chief Executive Anne-Marie Lansdown said there had been a 40 per cent decline in commencing international students from pre-pandemic levels – a worrying sign for one of the country's most important export sectors.
"The closure of international borders during the Covid-19 pandemic has obviously had an impact on the willingness of international students to enrol at an Australian university," Ms Lansdown told AAP.
"Nonetheless, the fundamental attractiveness of an Australian education has not changed."
Ms Lansdown said she is optimistic a "corner has been turned" as pilot plans have been announced to return international students to New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland.
International students looking outside of Australia
Adventus, which partners with more than 1500 institutions, found since March applications had grown by 148 per cent in Canada, 150 per cent in the United Kingdom and 422 per cent in the United States, partially fuelled by the platform's growth in those regions.
Adventus Chief Executive Officer Ryan Trainor said students who would have typically chosen Australia as a study destination are looking elsewhere.
"This may have a long-term impact on the country as we have lost nearly two years of students and the flow-on effect may have longer-term implications if the government does not create a united, every-state message to the students worldwide." Mr Trainor told AAP.