State and federal governments have been accused of playing ‘pass the parcel’ over responsibility for strategy.
“Our priority is ensuring that Australians can get home and Australians are kept safe from the virus”
It’s estimated nearly 165,000 international students remain locked out of Australia, 57,000 of those registered as students in Victoria. International students contribute around $13.7 billion to the state economy and support 79,000 jobs annually.
A national cabinet meeting of state and territory leaders and the federal government on January 8 saw the international arrival cap almost halved until at least February 15 as the country continued to fight outbreaks of Covid-19 in several states.
The decision meant there was no chance of international students being able to return in time for the commencement of semester one in February, despite plans suggesting the opposite detailed late in 2020.
Victorian students were given renewed hope when a spokesperson for Victorian premier Daniel Andrews later said the state was “working closely” with the federal government to bring international students back into Victoria.
Reports noted the premier would be taking plans to national cabinet on February 5 that would increase the number of overseas arrivals allowed in the state and create a separate entry quota for international students.
The plan had support from the university sector and stakeholders including Scape, Australia’s largest student accommodation provider, which has been lobbying the Victorian government to let them charter flights for students and run their own quarantine system.
However hopes have been all but dashed following a press conference last week where Andrews dismissed plans for mass re-entry in 2021, labelling them “unlikely”.
“Tens of thousands of international students coming back here is going to be incredibly challenging, if not impossible, this year,” he said.
He said international education was the state’s biggest export and he was not pleased that students won’t be able to return for another year, but his government is not spending hours and hours to try and make something possible that “frankly” it believes is not possible.
“I think [returning] 20,000 or 30,000 international students this year is going to be really hard, up to the point of, I don’t think we can do that.”
However even if Victoria were to propose a plan for international returns on a mass scale, it would need to be signed off by the federal government which has ultimate control on international arrival and quarantine numbers.
Recently appointed federal education minister Alan Tudge said the government remains committed to the safety of Australians and Australia first, before it would lock in a timeline for the arrival of international students.
“It’s going to be very difficult… Our priority is ensuring that Australians can get home and Australians are kept safe from the virus.”
He has also put responsibility for international student return strategies back on individual states and territories.
Tudge told national broadcaster ABC that education providers need to work with states to each come up with a plan, to be approved by their respective chief medical officers, then present them to the federal government.
“That’s the process. Now, the state governments are working through those things, along with the higher education providers, but we’re still not at that stage yet where we’re in the position to be able to have significant quarantining arrangements for those international students.”
He said he was yet to receive any detailed proposals.
The availability of an effective vaccine will make “a big difference”, which may allow the country to “be able to take numbers in again”.
Tudge has also proposed “vaccination certificates” to help students arrive without the need to quarantine in Australia.
“My message to those international students overseas is, of course we want to bring you back to Australia and we are working on how to do that safely and without impacting the number of Australians who can come home,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
IEAA CEO Phil Honeywood said last week that “there’s a bit of a game of pass the parcel going on between the federal and state governments”.
The prime minister Scott Morrison “has indicated that quarantine is a state government responsibility, and that the chief medical officers in each state have suddenly become de-facto premiers in many cases”, he told Sydney-based radio station 2GB.
“Unfortunately the federal government can, when they choose to, wash their hands of this,” Honeywood added.
Meanwhile more than 15,700 people have added their signature to a petition asking for the federal government for a travel ban exemption.
“International students are willing to quarantine, obey any rules and pay all the fees”
“Our human rights of attending school are being deprived and leads our family to horrible mental illness. We do not pay our family’s saving for video lessons or rent for house which we cannot even live in,” the petition reads.
“International students are willing to quarantine, obey any rules and pay all the fees. We are willing to quarantine in students apartments and will not take any stranded Australians’ places.”