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Australia turns on green light for international students

The federal government of Australia has finally put a date on the country’s borders opening for vaccinated students, giving students what stakeholders describe as a “clear pathway” to arriving on the country’s shores.

Commercial flights into Australia are still at less than 40% pre-pandemic levels, stakeholders have warned. Photo: pexels

The government has also announced travel bubbles with Japan and South Korea starting December 1

From  December 1, fully vaccinated student visa holders will be eligible to arrive in Australia without needing to apply for a travel exemption. The government says the return of international students to Australia will “further cement our economic recovery”.

In a joint statement from the prime minister, minister for Foreign Affairs, minister for Home Affairs, and minister for Education and Youth, Minister for Women, the government said the program is consistent with the National Plan to safely reopen Australia.

“These changes will ensure we continue to protect the health of Australians, while reuniting families and securing our economic recovery by opening our border to skilled and student visa holders,” they said.

To be eligible to return, students must be fully vaccinated with a TGA-recognised vaccine, provide proof of vaccination status and hold a valid visa. Additionally, they will need to provide a negative PCR test taken within three days of departure.

Seven days must have passed since the final dose of vaccine for students to be considered vaccinated.

Arrivals must also comply with quarantine requirements in the state or territory where they are headed. NSW, Victoria and the ACT have quarantine-free arrival plans for students. Victoria was the latest state to announce quarantine-free travel – which it did on November 20 – for students who can demonstrate they meet vaccination conditions.

“The return of skilled workers and students to Australia is a major milestone in our pathway back”

Universities Australia said it is seeing an increasing trend towards no quarantine for fully vaccinated students.

“The return of skilled workers and students to Australia is a major milestone in our pathway back, it’s a major milestone about what Australians have been able to achieve and enable us to do,” prime minister Scott Morrison said.

“It’ll mean a lot for the economies of our country who need those workers and want to see those students return.”

“This is great news which will give heart to more than 130,000 international students with visas waiting to return to Australia. They want nothing more than to re-join their classmates in Australia,” Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said.

“We look forward to further detail so we can work quickly to get students back for first semester next year.”

Regional Universities Network executive director Alec Webb said the exemption free travel from December 1 will be “appreciated by prospective and returning international students”.

“This announcement ends uncertainty for thousands of international students looking to return to Australia to enjoy the benefits of Australia’s world-class higher education system. From today, international students have a clear pathway to arriving on our shores,” Webb stated.

“Regional communities, businesses and universities are incredibly enthusiastic and excited to welcome prospective and returning international students back to Australia’s regions.”

“The past 18 months have been tough for independent tertiary education providers which support overseas students, so the Australian Government’s announcement is most welcome,” said ITECA chief executive Troy Williams.

“Today’s announcement is great news for the students looking to come to the quality Australian tertiary education providers who are eager to support them in their learning and education journey.”

IEAA said it was “delighted” by the federal government’s announcement.

However, ensuring students are vaccinated and have negative PCR test results, the fact that commercial flights into Australia are still at less than 40% pre-pandemic levels, and the manual processing of students’ vaccination certificates by border force on arrival, remain hurdles, the organisation highlighted.

Some states and universities are looking at booking charter flights to get good numbers of students back before semester one 2022 and the Department of Home Affairs has indicated that an electronic vaccination verification system is also “imminent”, IEAA said.

“Our fractured federal system at this stage will require returning international students to quarantine in Queensland and South Australia,” IEAA chief executive Phil Honeywood added in a statement.

“For this reason, some students are likely to enter Australia through Sydney or Melbourne airports, spend 14 days in those states before taking a domestic flight into South Australia and Queensland. For Western Australia, they will have to wait a bit longer (expected mid to late January).”

English Australia said in a statement that the news its members “have long awaited” had landed.

“This news is incredibly welcomed. From the very beginning of the pandemic and the time when our international borders closed, English Australia has been continuously advocating for the urgent return of international students in a safe and timely manner,” it said.

The organisation added that it has worked closely with federal and state governments to ensure ELICOS students were not forgotten.

“It is perhaps the most welcome announcement since the beginning of the pandemic”

“We recognise that the reopening of our border to international students is not a silver bullet, but it is perhaps the most welcome announcement since the beginning of the pandemic,” it said.

Members will still need support before significant volumes of students can return.

“What will become crucial in the coming months is that visa processing times and assessment outcomes do not in any way hinder the restoration of our members and the ELICOS sector,” English Australia added.

The Australian cities of Melbourne and Sydney also welcomed international students from Singapore on November 21, as part of a two-way travel bubble between the two countries.

While student numbers were small, “they are a clear signal of the intent to allow many more students to return to classes and our communities soon”, Universities Australia’s Jackson added.

“National consistency on return arrangements is very important and, as a nation, we have work to do on that front,” she said ahead of the arrival on November 20.

“Universities understand the uncertainty felt by international students around how and when they can return, and we pay tribute to their resilience and loyalty during almost two years separated from their campuses.”

The government has also announced travel bubbles with Japan and South Korea starting December 1.

The first of the student return pilot plans, organised by New South Wales and ACT universities, arrives in Sydney on December 6.

“Universities have worked closely with government and health authorities for more than 18 months on plans to safely welcome back our international friends. Around 130,000 international students remain outside Australia, and they are all very eager to re-join their classmates,” Jackson added.

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