The commonwealth government has approved plans to return students on chartered flights, paid for by students, before they quarantine for 14 days at a Covid-safe building run by accommodation provider Scape.
The Scape Redfern accommodation block in Sydney can accommodate up to 650 students, but the first phase is anticipated to bring back 500 international students to NSW by the end of 2021, with 250 students returning per fortnight.
“The international education sector sustains thousands of jobs across NSW, and I’m proud that NSW is leading the way with the return of international students to our shores,” said deputy premier and minister for regional New South Wales, industry and trade John Barilaro.
“The safety of the people of NSW is paramount and we are taking no risks”
The central government has repeatedly said that international students would be given the green light to return once vaccination rates have reached 70-80% of the Australian population. The country’s minister for education and youth, Alan Tudge, recently said Australia was “perilously close” to hitting the key vaccination targets.
“The safety of the people of NSW is paramount and we are taking no risks,” Barilaro continued.
“All participating students will be required to be fully vaccinated with a TGA-recognised Covid-19 vaccine, and strict quarantine protocols will be in place.
“Importantly, this plan will not come at the expense of any Australian citizen or resident wishing to return home.”
Politicians in the state reminded of the importance of the international education sector to the local economy.
“International education plays an important role in connecting NSW to the world,” said NSW treasurer Dominic Perrottet.
“As we implement a range of efforts to reboot our economy, rebuilding the sector – which was worth $14.6 billion to NSW in 2019 – is a key part of our efforts.”
More than 57,000 students are currently overseas, with many “desperate to return, resume their studies, part-time jobs, connect with friends and continue their journey in our world-leading institutions”, minister for jobs, investment, tourism and Western Sydney Stuart Ayres added.
Some potential obstacles remain however, CEO of IEAA, Phil Honeywood told The PIE.
“The NSW state government’s decision to finally press the ‘Go button’ on their student return plan has provided a huge morale boost to Australia’s beleaguered international education sector,” he said.
“There will still, however, be some hurdles in the implementation stage.
“These include which students will be given preference to recommence studies at which universities, how to contain cost per student… and the politics of having only four vaccines eligible at this stage.
“The devil will be very much in the detail as we work through this re-entry plan”
“The devil will be very much in the detail as we work through this re-entry plan.”
Chinese students will unlikely be eligible for the pilot as Sinovac and Sinopharm – the most used vaccines in China – are not recognised by Australia.
“We all want international students back on campus, enjoying the unique learning, work and life experience that only studying in Australia can deliver,” noted Belle Lim, president of Council of International Students Australia.
“We support the cautious approach and look forward to growing the number of students returning to NSW over time.”
Education partners that have signed up for the pilot plan include Australian Catholic University, Macquarie University, The University of Newcastle, The University of Sydney, UNSW, UTS, University of Wollongong and Western Sydney University, plus independent providers the International College of Management Sydney, Kaplan, Navitas, RedHill and Study Group.
Universities Australia welcomed the “carefully developed pilot plan” for a gradual return of international students.
“NSW university leaders have been working hard with the NSW state government and the commonwealth on plans to safely return students for 18 months now,” Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson noted.
“[This] announcement will bring hope and certainty for many students who have been patiently waiting to return to New South Wales campuses and realise their dream of a world class Australian education.”
The NSW scheme will be closely watched, she added.
South Australia, Western Australian and Victoria have all been working on plans to bring international students back to Australia. A surge in Covid-19 cases during August resulted in plans to be put on hold. NSW had hoped to begin a student return pilot in mid-2021.
“Nearly half of all international students in higher education remain outside of Australia,” Jackson reminded.
“Around one third of our international PhD students are also offshore, anxious to return to complete their research here. All of them will be looking to the success of the New South Wales initiative.”
Universities Australia has previously warned universities in the country will lose $2bn in 2021 as a result of closed borders.
“After over 18 months of planning, we are delighted that both the Australian and NSW government are supportive of a pilot plan for an incremental reopening of our borders to our international students,” Barney Glover AO, governor of the NSW Vice-Chancellors’ Committee added.
Participating education providers will contact students to progress an expression of interest for the pilot plan, the announcement added.