Australia shelves plan to fly in international students

Trial flights of overseas students taken off the table, as safe haven visas for Hong Kong students herald more tension with China

July 9, 2020
jet with contrails

Canberra’s universities have shelved plans to fly in international students after a resurgence of Covid-19 cases triggered renewed lockdowns and border closures in Australia.

The Australian National University and the University of Canberra said they had decided to postpone a “well-advanced pilot plan” to return 350 continuing students to Canberra campuses later this month.

The scheme would have seen the students undertaking second semester studies on campus following a fortnight of police-supervised quarantine in apartment-style accommodation.

The universities of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide have also reportedly developed plans to fly in tens of thousands of foreign students on a pilot basis as part of an effort to reboot international education flows and steal a march on northern hemisphere universities.

However, an upsurge in coronavirus cases in Melbourne has put paid to hopes that students could be jetted in there, with international flights to the Victorian capital temporarily suspended.

City-wide stay-at-home restrictions were reinstated for six weeks from 9 July, disrupting Melbourne universities’ return-to-campus plans.

The uptick in Melbourne’s Covid cases also appears to have scuppered hopes of jetting students into Sydney and Adelaide because the federal government says such plans are contingent on states keeping their borders open to interstate travel.

New South Wales closed its border to Victoria on 8 July, for the first time in a century, and South Australia has scrapped plans to reopen its border with its eastern neighbour.

That left the Australian Capital Territory as the only jurisdiction where pilot flights of international students remained feasible. But Canberra vice-chancellor Paddy Nixon said the two universities had decided it was “best to press pause on our plans…given the ever-evolving circumstance of this global pandemic”.

ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said it was “not an end to the programme, just a delay”, and the two universities remained committed to repatriating their overseas students “when the time is right”.

“We always said we would only undertake this programme when it was safe for our students, our campuses and the wider community,” Professor Schmidt said.

Meanwhile, the continuing escalation of tensions between Australia and China could further disrupt student flows when flights are allowed to resume. On 8 July, the Australian government warned its citizens that they could face arbitrary detention if they visited mainland China.

The advice, branded “completely ridiculous” by Chinese representatives, was seen as a reaction to the new security law in Hong Kong as well as the recent arrest of a Beijing professor with ties to Australia. It may also be a tit-for-tat response after China cautioned its students about racism in Australia.

On 9 July, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, made good on his suggestion a week earlier that he would offer safe haven visas to Hong Kong residents worried about the new security law. The new arrangements target students and graduates as well as skilled workers.

Current and future students from Hong Kong will be eligible for a five-year temporary graduate visa upon graduation, with a pathway to permanent residency after five years. There are 8,032 Hong Kong students in Australia and another 2,193 stranded offshore, according to recent Education Department figures.

Hongkongers already in Australia on temporary graduate visas will be able to extend their stays for five years. Australia has also suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong.

In a furious response, China’s embassy in Canberra ratcheted the tensions up another notch. “The Australian side has been clanking that they oppose ‘foreign interference’,” it said. “However, they have blatantly interfered in China’s internal affairs.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Probably a good idea, as spread from an 'imported' student cases is likely to cause even more issues with public trust.