Australia drops preapproval requirement for overseas students

While Canberra’s decision is ‘great news’, students still face competition for flights and a mishmash of state rules

November 22, 2021
Plane landing at Sydney Airport during covid19 lockdown on a nice sunny afternoon
Source: iStock

Vaccinated international students will be able to enter Australia without special permits from the start of December, raising hopes that large numbers may arrive in time for the 2022 academic year.

But incoming students face the “mad scramble” of finding flights and uncertainty over whether airport processes are up to the challenge of validating their vaccination status. And those who clear these hurdles confront a hotchpotch of state-based rules, with some jurisdictions still requiring quarantine and some yet to open their doors to travellers from interstate, let alone overseas.

Prime minister Scott Morrison said student visa holders would be among the foreigners admitted without needing to apply for travel exemptions, so long as they had tested negative for Covid-19 within three days of departure and received full dosages of vaccines recognised by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration.

“The return of skilled workers and international students to Australia will further cement our economic recovery,” Mr Morrison said.

Representative groups were delighted. “[It] signals the beginning of an exciting new phase for Australia’s fourth largest export industry,” said Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson.

“The value of international students to Australia is more than just the impact they have on the economy and employment, though their A$3.1 billion [£1.7 billion] annual economic contribution and support for 250,000 jobs is important,” said Universities Australia’s Catriona Jackson.

Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, said that the announcement was “great news” for 150,000 student visa holders who had been “waiting patiently” in their home countries.

“However, key challenges still remain, including some states still having separate quarantine requirements, and the mad scramble that’s now going to ensue for seats on planes after 1 December. In all of this, we must ensure that Sydney and Melbourne airports are able to manually process enough vaccination certificates until a long-awaited electronic verification system comes into place.”

The most populous states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, along with the Australian Capital Territory, no longer expect fully vaccinated students to undergo quarantine upon arrival. However, under current arrangements, NSW and Victoria only plan to admit people who arrive on specially chartered flights under state plans to phase in students’ return.

These plans initially cater to only a few hundred students a month, prompting demands on social media that the two states “stop hurting students” and “scrap” the pilot plans. “Cricket players are welcomed into the country; tennis players are welcomed; Singaporean students and tourists are welcomed, non-quarantine and uncapped,” says a plea from an anonymous Indian student. “But not students who have been given hopes, repeatedly, that priority will be given to them.”

Times Higher Education asked NSW and Victoria whether the caps on student arrivals would be lifted, but had not received answers by the time of publication. Mr Honeywood said he expected NSW charter flights booked for 6 and 24 December to proceed, regardless of whether caps were removed, and the students booked onto the two flights would have “first mover advantage”.

Accommodation provider Scape, which had been contracted to provide quarantine services for the NSW pilot plan, said it was “thrilled” to be welcoming students back. “Our teams have been preparing our accommodation, services and support across NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland in preparation for their return,” said chief executive Anouk Darling.

Students flying directly into South Australia will be required to quarantine for a week until the state reaches a 90 per cent vaccination threshold, expected in late December or early January. Queensland’s pilot plan, which is yet to be approved by the federal government, requires international students to quarantine in a special facility about 150 kilometres west of Brisbane.

Both states are likely to waive quarantine requirements for students who have been elsewhere in Australia for a fortnight. Mr Honeywood said “astute students” bound for Queensland or South Australian universities might begin their sojourns with 14-day holidays in NSW or Victoria.

Western Australia remains the country’s most inaccessible state, with most international and interstate visitors still required to obtain prior approval and quarantine for 14 days. These rules are not expected to change before the state reaches a 90 per cent vaccination threshold in late January or early February.

Canberra has also announced a travel bubble with Japan and South Korea, allowing unrestricted entry of immunised and Covid-free travellers from those countries. This could prove a boost for Australia’s struggling English language colleges, which take enrolments from people on tourist and working holiday as well as student visas.

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