Prime Minister Scott Morrison has reiterated the cautious approach, saying Australia will open its borders, but not before it is safe.
“It is not safe to take those next steps right now. There is a sliding sort of scale here, and we’re working on the next steps,” he said.
Yet as budget assumptions suggest that borders will remain shut until mid-2022, universities and federal governments are pulling together formal proposals to allow students to return to their territories.
In Victoria, the government is working with education providers and the federal government on a plan to facilitate the gradual return of international students “when conditions allow”.
“To support this plan, the Victorian government has put forward a letter to the Australian government which would enable the safe arrival of key economic cohorts, which includes international students, to support Victoria’s and Australia’s economic recovery,” a spokesperson told The PIE News.
“The proposal would see a limited number of arrivals each week in addition to the existing international passenger arrival cap. Quarantine will be managed separately in a dedicated facility which adheres to the requirements of Victoria’s hotel quarantine program for returned overseas travellers to ensure the health and safety of our community.
“It is difficult to provide a definitive timeline for when international students can return to Victoria in significant numbers”
“It is difficult to provide a definitive timeline for when international students can return to Victoria in significant numbers. This will depend on health advice, the rollout of vaccines and other factors that need to be considered to ensure the safety of the community,” they added.
A NSW government spokesperson said it “has been working closely with the international education sector… on a plan to facilitate the safe return of international students to Australia and to our local communities”.
“This work is continuing to ensure that all safety and regulatory requirements can be met by any proposal,” they added.
In a statement to The PIE, Tourism and Innovation minister in Queensland Stirling Hinchliffe highlighted that the National Cabinet’s priority is the return of Australian citizens stranded overseas by the pandemic.
“The timing of student returns is a decision for the Federal Government as the level of government with responsibility for Australia’s international border,” he said.
“I’ve been working closely with Study Queensland and the State’s Vice-Chancellors to consolidate arrangements for the safe return of international students once the Federal Government makes its decision.”
The government for South Australia is also prioritising the return of international students and working closely with the commonwealth to finalise a plan that “meets all of the protocols and ensures a safe and sustainable program for both students and the South Australian community”, StudyAdelaide CEO Karyn Kent said.
Student accommodation facilities are being assessed for their suitability for quarantining returning students, she explained. The safety of students and the community remains the number one priority through each stage of the process, she added.
Since mid-2020, StudyPerth has been collaborating with a consortium of Western Australian universities – included liaising with the Department of Education, Skills and Employment and relevant federal agencies – to plan for the safe return of international students.
Its “comprehensive” proposal has received strong support and advice from the WA chief health officer’s office, and is awaiting feedback from the WA government, StudyPerth chief executive officer Phil Payne noted.
Feedback is expected from the WA Department of the Premier and Cabinet within the next two weeks.
“The proposal is a proof of concept and has been developed to address the federal government’s protocols and preconditions and reflects the current environment of mandatory hotel quarantine with state-run quarantine arrangements and state-based arrival caps in WA,” Payne told The PIE.
It also includes “consideration of possible models for a post-vaccination scenario, which may also involve alternative quarantine or isolation facilities”.
Latest cumulative government figures show that international student commencements in the year to March 2021 fell by 31%, while the number of enrolments had fallen by 17%.
Other points-in-time statistics revealed that between July 2020 to March 2021, the total number of enrolled international students in Australia had dropped 21%, while the percentage of enrolled students overseas had leaped 82%.
Preliminary data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics additionally shows that tuition fees from students outside Australia totalled $3.3 billion in 2020.
While media reports suggest that Morrison believes international students are the next priority cohort after the repatriation of Australian citizens, a Newspoll for The Australian recently found however that 73% of voters support the government’s ‘Fortress Australia’ approach and believe the international borders should remain closed until at least the middle of 2022.
“The premier’s cautious response to the pandemic is clearly popular with the electorate in WA,” said StudyPerth’s Payne.
“But we know that the WA government is keen for the international education sector to emerge strongly and sustainably from the shadows of Covid-19 and be an important component of a diversified economy and a job creator.”
Update 9:25 GMT, May 19: This article has been updated to include comment from Stirling Hinchliffe.