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Australia: Victoria submits re-opening plan to federal government

The Australian state of Victoria has submitted plans to the federal government to allow 120 international students to return per week, with institutions covering $5,000 hotel quarantine costs and students paying for flights.

At its peak before the pandemic, international education contributed $13.7 billion to the state’s economy. Photo: pexels

"We are now looking forward to talking with the Victorian government about Stage 2 of the Arrivals Plan"

According to a senior government source, The Age reported that, if approved by federal government, international students could begin arriving before the end of 2021.

The news comes days after Australian prime minister Scott Morrison revealed plans to begin opening the country’s borders, beginning for Australian citizens.

At the same time, Australia recognised China’s Sinovac and India’s Covishield as vaccines for travellers arriving in the country – a move Universities Australia said would “clear the way for fully vaccinated students from China and India to re-join their friends on Australian university campuses in the near future”.

A previous plan had intended to begin the return of students to the state in early 2021. As a result of increasing Covid-19 cases, plans – such as the ones outlined by the Council for International Education in late 2020 or the pilot scheme announced in mid-2020 – have not come to fruition.

“Many of our international partners do not understand the path Australia has taken”

Apart from some 63 students arriving in Darwin in November 2020, Covid-19 surges have threatened plans for further student return pilots in the country. Sector stakeholders have warned that Australia’s approach to handling the pandemic, along with its high dependency on international student mobility, could mean it will take up to a decade to return pre-Covid international student levels.

After months of not providing a timeline for international students’ return, the government recently approved a plan to bring 250 students back to New South Wales per fortnight from December. In June, the federal government approved a plan to bring international students back to South Australia – a pilot stakeholders suggested could serve as blueprint for other states to follow.

It is hoped the plan for Victoria is an important symbol to the rest of the world that “Australia is open”, Deakin University vice-chancellor Iain Martin told The Age.

“There is no doubt that despite our success in minimising illness and death from Covid, many of our international partners do not understand the path Australia has taken, so a signal to our partners and global communities we are opening up is incredibly important,” he said.

“We are delighted there’s a plan and a path forward.”

Speaking with The PIE News, pro vice-chancellor of global engagement at Swinburne University of Technology, Douglas Proctor, said that Swinburne has been collaborating with the Victorian government and other higher education institutions in the state over several months on the preparation of the International Students Arrivals Plan for Victoria.

“We’re delighted that it has now received approval from the Victorian government and is being submitted to the Commonwealth government for review and endorsement,” he said. Asked if the plan could be rejected by the central government,Proctor suggested it is “highly unlikely that the plan will be rejected”.

“However, I have no clear sense of timing for this next stage,” he added. “As such, it is still difficult for us to prepare tangible advice for our current international students who are overseas about next steps.

“That being said, we are certainly gearing up to welcome students back (noting that about one third of our on-campus international student cohort is currently overseas). We’ve been continuing to support the bulk of them who remained in Australia, of course.”

The Age reported that the Victorian opposition spokesman for higher education Matthew Bach said that Victorian universities are “bleeding enrolments by the day, whilst other states have plans in place”.

“A Victorian plan is now a matter of the utmost urgency to get our state back on track.”

A government spokesperson added that the Victorian government will “present our Student Arrivals Plan to the Commonwealth shortly. The plan will provide for the stages and safe return of international students”.

Proctor, who arrived at Swinburne in early August from University College Dublin in Ireland, has established an International Education Recovery Taskforce to work on the return plans for international students, onshore/offshore student support and welfare initiatives (including transition and orientation support), he explained.

The cross-institution membership group will also be “looking at the resumption of our outbound mobility program”, Proctor added.

In Stage 1 of the Victorian International Student Arrivals Plan, 120 students per week across the higher education sector will return, “with defined priority cohorts such as students needing to undertake work placements to graduate, Higher Degree Research students close to completion”, he detailed.

“Quarantine costs will be billed to institutions under an industry-user pays model”

“Under this stage, students will pay for their flights and the quarantine costs will be billed to institutions under an industry-user pays model,” Proctor noted.

“We are now looking forward to talking with the Victorian government about Stage 2 of the Arrivals Plan and how this aligns with the Australian government’s four-phase national plan to transition Australia’s Covid response to post-vaccination settings.”

The recognition of Sinovac and Covishield earlier in October is a “major milestone in ensuring a smooth transition for their return to Australian campuses”, Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said last week.

Go8 members based in Victoria include Monash University and the University of Melbourne.

“Importantly, we can now provide clear advice to our international students, who while continuing their studies offshore have had to rely on the vaccines made available to them,” she added.

Earlier in September, the Victorian government announced a $50 million International Education Resilience Fund to fund international student welfare and support services, improved delivery of remote and offshore teaching and learning, and increased student engagement programs and event.

Drawing students from 170 countries, international education is Victoria’s largest export earner and supports significant job creation, Proctor reminded.

At its peak before the pandemic, the sector contributed $13.7 billion to the state’s economy and supporting around 79,000 Victorian jobs.

“Victoria is home to Australia’s best student city (Melbourne) and some of the country’s most prestigious education institutions,” he added.

“In addition to supporting Victorian jobs, international education supports Victoria’s world-class reputation for research excellence, helping our economy compete in a global field that is underpinned by research and innovation.”

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