Australian state backs speedy return of international students

Premier offers latest on-again, off-again signal about resumption of student flows

November 22, 2020
Source: iStock

The head of Australia’s biggest state is lobbying for international students to be allowed back into Australia from the start of the new year, putting herself at odds with her Liberal Party counterparts in Canberra.

New South Wales (NSW) premier Gladys Berejiklian has proposed that one-third of Sydney’s quarantine places for overseas arrivals be set aside for incoming foreign workers and international students.

Speaking from Albury on the NSW-Victoria border, which has reopened after a four-and-a-half-month Covid-induced lockdown, Ms Berejiklian said she would like to see a relaxation of international border restrictions to admit economically important foreign workers and students.

She highlighted the impacts of the current arrangements on universities, some of which obtain more than A$1 billion (£550 million) a year from international tuition fees. “I don’t want to see universities laying off hundreds and hundreds of workers because international students can’t get back in,” she told journalists.

Her remarks come after prime minister Scott Morrison hosed down hopes of a large-scale influx of international students before February.

Speaking after a meeting with premiers on 13 November, Mr Morrison said quarantine space would be prioritised for returning Australians. “While we look forward to welcoming international students back and will continue planning for their return, we cannot progress the broader entry of international students at this time,” he said.

Under arrangements negotiated by the prime minister, state premiers and territory chief ministers, overseas arrivals are currently capped at fewer than 7,000 a week to protect hotel-based quarantine services from being overwhelmed.

Mr Morrison had earlier flagged allowing quarantine in other settings – including campuses as well as homes, farms and mining camps – but ruled those options out as too risky. “It’s not…simply a matter of rooms in hotels to do it. There is also the police support that is needed to properly run quarantine, and the health support.

“The quarantine system has been working effectively, and we want it to keep working effectively. The challenges we have in getting Australians home means that the ability to…take international students back at this time through quarantine arrangements does not present itself. It’s Australians coming home first – that is the commonwealth policy.”

The pronouncement does not appear to affect previously approved pilot programmes to fly about 70 overseas students to Darwin and up to 300 to Adelaide. Charles Darwin University now says the Darwin flight will arrive on 30 November.

But a resurgence of coronavirus in Adelaide, which forced a sudden three-day shutdown across South Australia, may set back hopes of early arrivals in the southern city.

Research by IDP Connect, based on surveys of more than 5,000 current and prospective international students, found that many were growing increasingly restless at the inability to enter Australia. Over half of respondents said they were likely to switch preferred destinations if it meant they could access campus-based classes earlier.

The Mitchell Institute at Victoria University has warned that financial losses to the university sector will mount as travel restrictions persist. It says that even under the most optimistic scenario, with student flows back to normal by mid-2021, Australia will be hosting half as many international students by then as it had in late 2019.

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