Australia waives work restrictions for overseas nursing students

Australia bends rules to marshal health resources as social distancing directives are intensified

March 18, 2020
Female nurse comforts young woman in hospital corridor
Source: iStock

Australia is conscripting foreign nursing students to help treat coronavirus patients as the country again ratchets up its policy response to the epidemic.

Prime minister Scott Morrison said work restrictions would be lifted on some 20,000 international nursing students. “They’re going to be available to support the health effort right across the country, as directed by our health officials,” he told an 18 March press conference.

“We’re not importing nurses into Australia,” he added. “That would obviously be against travel advice. [These] international student nurses have been in Australia for some time.”

The decision means that foreign nursing students will no longer be subjected to the 40-hour fortnightly work limit normally applied to international students during term time. It comes five days after the government lifted the 40-hour restriction on foreign students who stack supermarket shelves, to help keep grocery supplies flowing in the face of panic buying.

The government has also intensified its social distancing measures, reducing the maximum size of “non-essential” gatherings from 500 to 100 people.

While universities are exempted from this rule – along with transport facilities, medical centres, schools, shops, workplaces and a host of other venues – all universities had previously indicated their intention to comply voluntarily with the 500-person limit.

This means that some universities are likely to revisit plans disclosed in only the past few days. The University of Newcastle, for example, announced on Monday that it intended to continue on-campus lectures for groups of between 100 and 200 students.

Some institutions have gone further than that, immediately moving to online delivery for all their lectures. The University of Southern Queensland (USQ) is the latest to go completely online, committing to cease on-campus teaching from 23 March.

USQ said all campus-based courses would be replaced by online offerings, with digital classes following the existing on-campus class timetable. Practical elements would be replaced or rescheduled “on a course-by-course basis”, with final paper-based exams giving way to “alternative assessment items”.

As a long-standing distance education specialist, USQ said it was well placed to move quickly, and most degree programmes were already available fully online.

But about one-third of Australian universities – including Notre Dame Australia, Murdoch, Adelaide and Central Queensland University – have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, saying there would be no changes to scheduled classes pending further government advice.

Mr Morrison announced that Australia was moving to level 4 travel advice – no overseas travel – for an indefinite period. “That is the first time that has ever happened in Australia’s history,” he said, warning people to get used to such measures. “We are looking at a situation of at least six months.

“It could be much longer. It could be shorter. That’s unlikely, given the way we’re seeing events unfold. There’s no two-week answer to what we’re confronting. There’s no short-term quick fix.”

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