The national cabinet meeting between state and federal leaders held on Feb. 5, 2021 did not result in any proposed timeline for international students’ return to Australia. According to The PIE News, the meeting was expected to discuss a range of COVID-19-related travel and vaccine measures, including proposed plans to bring back international students.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison made no mention of international students or anticipated return dates but said the 40,000 Australians stranded overseas remain a top priority. Starting mid-February, Australia’s cap on international arrivals will increase to 6,300 from 4,100 currently, he adds. The Howard Springs quarantine facility will also be expanded to hold more international arrivals for the mandatory 14 day quarantine period. It was previously used in the country’s first pilot programme to house international students returning to Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory.
The facility would be used to house Australian citizens entering via federal government repatriation flights, with those arrivals not being counted under the caps. “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,” Morrison was quoted saying.
“To be able to come to Australia, you need to be an Australian resident or citizen or have a particular exemption in a particular occupation or something of that nature which is handled through [the] Border Force to enable someone to come. And that is only a small proportion of the arrivals that come to Australia.” About 30% (nearly 164,000) of Australia’s 542,106 student visa holders were stuck outside the country on Jan. 10, 2021; at least 12,740 student visa holders who left Australia were from India, the second-largest source of international students to Australia.
Return to Australia: Flip flop in plans
In November 2020, New South Wales (NSW) Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she wanted the state’s borders to open to international students within weeks, but the state government had to shelve its plans to return 1,000 international students to Sydney each week. Similarly, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said his state would not be able to help facilitate the arrival of almost 165,000 international students stuck abroad, adding that facilitating the return of international students would be “incredibly challenging, if not impossible” in 2021. Each state is responsible for developing plans to bring students back, but the final approval lies with the federal government, said the report.
Canada and the UK have kept their borders open throughout the pandemic, prompting key representatives in the education sector to lobby for the return of international students to Australia. International education is worth 40 billion Australian dollars. Previously, thousands of international students signed an online petition addressed to the House of Representatives calling for their exemption from Australia’s COVID-19 travel border restrictions.
Over 17,000 people have signed the petition at the time of writing. According to the petition, many university students are struggling with the “bad quality” of online lessons. “International students are willing to quarantine, obey any rules and pay all the fees. We are willing to quarantine in student apartments and will not take any stranded Australians’ places. Please allow international students, who do not have online lessons and urgently need to enter Australia to study, to go back to their schools and continue their education on a voluntary basis,” it read. Australia closed its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents on March 20, 2020. The first flight carrying 63 international students to return to Australia landed in Darwin on Nov. 30, 2020.