Australian state seeks to go solo on return of overseas students

New South Wales proposal could have international learners on campuses in time for second semester

May 13, 2021
UNSW Sydney campus
Source: iStock

Australia’s biggest state has reportedly vowed to defy Canberra and allow international students to return almost immediately, amid bickering among Australian jurisdictions over the continuing border closures’ chilling effects on international education.

New South Wales (NSW) bureaucracy, police and health officials have signed off on a plan to accept significant cohorts of overseas students using a quarantine system that is expected to be bankrolled by the university sector, according to The Australian newspaper.

NSW treasurer Dominic Perrottet suggested that students could arrive and complete quarantine in time for the start of second semester in August, the newspaper reported.

Mr Perrottet has been pressing since March for a change to Canberra’s arrivals policy, whereby returning residents are given access to quarantine ahead of any foreign students, as he seeks to minimise the damage coronavirus is inflicting on the state’s A$14.6 billion (£8 billion) international education industry.

In late March, the NSW government released a tender document seeking expressions of interest from “purpose-built student accommodation providers” in central Sydney to house incoming international students for the 14 days of quarantine.

This approach would “sit alongside” hotel quarantine arrangements for returning residents, apply the same “protocols” and avoid overloading “stretched” health and police resources, the document said.

“The return of international students as soon as possible is vital for retaining jobs in our education sector, and for the economy more broadly,” it said. “International education is our second largest export…supporting nearly 100,000 jobs in NSW before the pandemic. We estimate in 2021 we have already lost one-third of our international student base.”

The plan is perhaps the most ambitious of proposals by three state and two territory governments to jet in groups of foreign students. To date, all of these proposals have been cancelled or postponed, apart from a small Northern Territory programme that brought 63 international students into Darwin in November.

Most proposals have been shelved after sporadic outbreaks of coronavirus, often involving just a few cases, in cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. The proposals must also meet federal government conditions that they are signed off by state or territory chief medical officers and do not take aeroplane seats or quarantine beds away from returning residents.

The student groups must also sit alongside weekly arrival quotas set by each state and territory government.

The federal government has repeatedly denied being presented with proposals meeting these criteria. But education minister Alan Tudge said Victoria had provided the first such plan in late April. South Australia is also understood to be well advanced with a proposal involving a quarantine facility outside Adelaide’s central business district.

Despite this, the 11 May federal budget hosed down expectations of any large-scale international student arrivals before July 2022.

Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said governments needed to think more creatively about how to bring in students from places with very low coronavirus caseloads. He said the chance of students from places such as Singapore transmitting Covid into the Australian community after undergoing quarantine was “essentially zero”.

“The people in control – that is, the federal and the state governments – need to commit to finding a way of doing it rather than simply telling us that our ideas are not good enough,” Professor Schmidt told the ABC.

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