Victorian universities recently re-proposed a previously conceived plan to get international students back under a similar model used to fly in tennis players for the Australian Open. Under the proposal, universities would help pay for around 1,000 foreign students to be flown into Melbourne every two to three weeks and placed into special lockdown arrangements.
Similar plans to get international students back have been considered in various states since borders closed in March last year – and then quietly shelved. So far, only the Northern Territory has been able to bring 63 students to Australia.
But 63 students is an almost negligible number compared to how many visa holders are still stranded outside the country — an estimated 30% of 542,106 (or around 160,000) student visa holders were outside Australia as of January 10 2021.
In February, Phil Honeywood, the CEO of the International Education Association of Australia, expressed uncharacteristic desperation in his monthly email to members. He wrote: “When we directly lobby our federal politicians to promote student return plans, we are told that state/territory governments have full control of quarantine and we have to persuade them first. However, our discussions with state and territory politicians invariably produce the response that because the federal government controls Border Force, the ADF and international airport arrival caps, they are the ones actually in control!”
Victorian Acting Premier James Merlino last week also blamed Canberra for the lack of progress to bring students back: “If you don’t get that from the federal government then it doesn’t matter what other ideas, whether it’s the City of Melbourne, SA, NSW or ourselves, doesn’t matter what idea you have to deliver it, if you can’t get people [students] on the flights, it’s a no-goer.”
But Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge is on the other side of the blame game, saying, at the end of March: “there is still the opportunity to bring students back in small, phased pilots. This could occur if an institution works with the state or territory government and presents a plan to us for quarantining international students […] I have discussed various plans with government and university leaders but to date have not received any concrete proposal.”
This is all very confusing for the international education sector, which has come up with a number of concrete plans. Neither level of government seems to be able to either offer a sufficient explanation for why a plan it was considering was abandoned or, when an explanation is offered, when that plan may be resumed. This creates the perception, among those working in the sector and international students, that no governments care about their fate.
South Australian and ACT plans shelved
The Australian Capital Territory and South Australia were the first jurisdictions to announce plans to bring back international students. In June 2020, they proposed pilots that would bring in 350 and 800 students to Canberra and Adelaide respectively. But both these plans were put on hold after Victoria’s second wave hit at the beginning of July.
The South Australian pilot was resuscitated in November — with preparations reportedly well advanced — before an outbreak later that month sent Adelaide into a snap lockdown and the pilot was again put on ice. Not to be deterred, ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced in December he had requested Commonwealth approval to bring students back by February this year, but this too was quietly shelved with no explanation given.
Victoria and NSW try and try again
In Victoria, universities and student accommodation providers have put a series of proposals to the state government, the first of which were scuppered when Victoria went into extended lockdown from July during the second wave. In December, the Victorian government was considering a plan to fly in up to 23,000 international students early in 2021, who would serve out their quarantine in student accommodation. By January, the state government was upbeat saying it was “working closely” with the federal government to finalise the plan.
But that all changed in February. In a national cabinet meeting at which an international student return plan was to be agreed, Prime Minister Scott Morrison instead said: “It was agreed once again that the return of Australian residents is the priority in terms of arrivals to Australia. We must remember that our borders are actually shut. No one can just come to Australia.”
Within weeks, a small number of cases of community transmission from a Melbourne quarantine hotel caused a snap lockdown and the cessation of incoming international flights, which only resumed in April. Now that the dust appears to have settled once more, Victorian universities are trying again, with a proposal to fly in 1,000 students each fortnight. The state government’s response so far appears lukewarm at best.
New South Wales has also had its share of pilot announcements. A well-developed scheme to start returning 1,000 international students to Sydney each week was shelved in January after the outbreaks in the northern beaches and Western Sydney. The NSW government subsequently tried for international NSW university students to quarantine in Tasmania before coming to Sydney. Unsurprisingly the idea was quickly quashed by the Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein.
So, what now?
Only 63 international students have come to Australia through the Northern Territory in November 2020. They were quarantined in the Howard Springs facility. In March 2021, Scott Morrison announced the Howard Springs facility’s capacity would increase to 2,000 people per fortnight. But there is no suggestion any of those places will be available for international students.
A recent study I was involved in identified nearly 12,000 beds in student accommodation facilities in the City of Sydney and nearly 19,000 in the City of Melbourne. Using some of these properties could provide a parallel quarantine pathway for international students – without taking hotel quarantine spaces away from returning Australians.
New South Wales recently launched the International Student Accommodation Quarantine programme. The NSW government has invited student accommodation providers to apply to be assessed for eligibility (based on things like location and building layout) to house international students.
This is promising. We all agree bringing Australians home is a priority. But we have the capacity to bring back both. We know costs will be borne by students and education providers, and students will be subject to the same quarantine requirements and testing regimes already in place for returning Australians.
It’s just not good enough for the education minister to keep parroting the line returning Australians “remain the priority” over international students. If the government refuses to continue plans to bring students back, it must show them respect by providing a clear reason.