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The news that the Australian economy had slipped into recession for the first time in almost 30 years was as telling for the response it drew from the Federal Government, as it was in itself.

What was clear from the measures introduced in October’s federal budget was where the Australian government’s priorities lie. In short – and here’s something we can all celebrate – it sees young people and skills as of utmost importance even in these toughest of times.

That commitment comes in the form of a major initiative, backed up by $6bn of spending, to stimulate the young jobs market, and further funding to support Australian universities hit by the Covid crisis. in

The government has correctly identified two of Australia’s most vital assets – its attractive university offering, and its young people – as being both essential to its future growth, and also highly at risk in a recession. 

Australia has long had a magnetic draw to international students from all over the globe, but that has been severely hit by the covid crisis and subsequent bans on cross-border travel. A report by the Australian Population Research Institution estimates a huge drop-off, as much as 50%, in the number of students taking their places in mid-2021.

The country’s young people are its future in many ways, not least because they are blazing trails in new, exciting digital sectors, but that progress is at risk of being arrested by this recession. Chris Richardson, chief economist at Deloitte Access Economics, based in Canberra, laid out a stark warning in September that if a recession bites deep, it is the younger generation that may end up as the “scarring victims”.

He said: “These are the ones who … if we revisit them in 10, 20 or 30 years time, over that time, compared to someone arriving [in the workforce] not in a recession, end up with lower wages. They are the classic scarring victims.”

Sadly in times like these there is no simple advice to give. As someone who operates a global platform with a major student base in Australia, it pains me to see young people who have worked so hard through uni facing such an uncertain future on the other side. 

One piece of advice I’d offer, and what we’re encouraging our community of students to understand around the world, is that they’re not alone. The challenges that face Australians today are more or less universal around the world. 

Secondly, and this isn’t just an issue for the stressful here-and-now, in the face of uncertainty, one of the best things people can do is focus on their own strengths, and keep adding to and revising the skills they do have. Graduate recruiters are tightening up their own requirements in the face of covid – as well as recruiting less, leading to more competition – so in turn, students and graduates need to keep upskilling, and gaining new qualifications to match. 

Thirdly, we all need to focus on the positives, and the potential upsides – as unlikely as that might seem – to what’s going on at the moment. Yes, the current situation is nervy. And yes, universities there may be even tougher times ahead. 

But in the past week the news of at least two major breakthroughs from pharma companies working on Covid vaccinations have brought renewed hope that the pandemic won’t be a long drawn out pain. If the best hopes are true, that vaccines may be ready to roll out on a mass scale by the spring, then fears about the next academic year may be unfounded.

And there are things about the Australian economy which could well make it uniquely well-prepared for the future.

Talking to other business leaders with expert views on Australia, one of the things I’ve heard is far from there being a long-term dropoff in international students there could be the opposite: a boom in applications from overseas. 

And while covid has undoubtedly had a dramatic effect on Australia in the short term, the outbreak has been far less severe than in more densely populated countries elsewhere, not least in Europe. 

This, combined with the universities stimulus package introduced by the government in October, might well increase Australia’s pulling power for overseas students, especially those from China and South-East Asia.

If Australia can keep attracting and fostering talented and ambitious international students it will benefit hugely in the future. Today they are students, tomorrow they will be the influencers and decision-makers, capable of finding new innovative ways of shaping the Australian economy, investing in its sustained growth and ultimately becoming the employers and mentors of the generation to follow them.

For those graduating this year and next, there’s no escaping the fact that they will be entering choppy waters. But calm seas don’t make good sailors. Tough times can be great teachers. We must all be ready to learn, and re-learn, as the times dictate.