Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
16th Jun 2020

Australia announces July pilot to welcome back international students

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • With coronavirus infections dramatically down and plans afoot to significantly open the Australian economy, the Australian government has announced a pilot project to bring back international students to some universities as soon as July
  • Students from countries where the infection rate is low may be permitted to quarantine for only one week
  • Meanwhile, China, the largest student sending market, has issued a warning to its students about returning to Australia to study, in part in the context of a larger diplomatic impasse between China and Australia

As of this writing, Australia has been able to manage its coronavirus caseload down to fewer than 500 active cases, an accomplishment that is allowing the government to reopen the economy in stages, including a plan to welcome back international students as soon as July.

On 12 June, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke at a press conference about the plan, which is part of “Stage 3” reopening of the economy that also permits much larger public gatherings, saying that,

“On international students, we'll be working closely with states and territories, firstly on a pilot basis and to enable, in a very controlled setting, for international students to be able to come to Australia.”

He issued several caveats, explaining that it would be “particular” institutions that will receive approvals arranged by federal, state, and territory authorities allowing them to receive international students. He said,

“We've received some very, I think, well thought-through proposals from states as to how this can be done, particularly here in the [Australian Capital Territory]. This is something that I'm sure we would all welcome happening again, but it has to be done with the appropriate quarantine entry arrangements and biosecurity and all of those matters being addressed. That's something that I know Border Force is working on. Our Federal Cabinet has been considering that now for some time.”

The controlled pilots would allow a limited number of international students to return for Semester 2 in the Australian academic year starting in July before larger numbers come back to study in 2021.

Mr Morrison cautioned that Australian states will need to open up to Australian students from other areas of the country before they will be allowed to host international students:

“I made one thing very clear to the states and territories today, if you can't come to your state from Sydney, then no one is coming to your state from Singapore. If your borders open for international students, then you have to open up borders for Australians.”

The South Australian government has chosen 20 July for the reopening of its borders, while the Queensland government says it will reopen on 10 July. Tasmania looks likely to open in late July, while Western Australia has not yet announced its plans.

Shorter quarantine periods ahead

In an effort to smooth the entry of international students, the government has announced that it is considering cutting the two-week quarantine period to one week for students from countries with low infection rates (such as Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea). There may also be a “travel bubble” permitted for students coming from New Zealand that would allow for no quarantine measures at all.

University sector welcomes the news

With international students sometimes making up 30% or more of overall student populations at some universities, the higher education sector has been working diligently with government officials to arrive at strategies to safely bring back students from overseas. Proposals have included a requirement for rigorous health checks and for cooperation with the airline industry. 

Commenting on the news of the government’s plan to pilot the return of international students in July, Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said it was a “sensible approach”:

"Universities Australia has been talking to the Federal Government about an overarching framework for a safe return for some time…It is important that our hard-won success in limiting the spread of COVID-19 isn’t jeopardised.”

“A pilot is an important first step to a larger-scale return of our valued international friends in the future. The gradual reintroduction of international students into Australia requires careful planning with coordination between universities, governments across jurisdictions, health authorities and other key stakeholders.”

China warning

On a worrying note, China – by far the largest student sending market for Australia – last week issued a warning to Chinese students about returning to Australia, saying that there have been “racist incidents” directed at Asian people in Australia during the course of the pandemic.

Screen shot of a tweet by Bill Birtles, China Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corp Source: ABC
Screen shot of a tweet by Bill Birtles, China Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corp Source: ABC

Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham has rejected China’s assertion that Australia is not a safe and welcoming destination and the university sector has also called the warning “unjustified.” Tensions between China and Australia have been high for weeks since Australia called for an international investigation into the origins and spread of COVID-19, a call China’s ambassador to Australia, Jingye Cheng, suggested could result in Australia’s exports being boycotted in China.

The stakes are high: the estimates are that across Australia, universities’ revenues could fall by up to AUS$5 billion this year because of the pandemic; job losses related to the decline could reach 21,000.

For additional background, please see:

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