Morrison announces ‘pilot’ plan to bring international students back to Australia

The Federal Government will allow international students back into the country in a “pilot basis” from next month, as Australia’s higher education industry looks to recover from a double hit of travel restrictions and accusations of racism.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the pilot plan after a National Cabinet meeting in Canberra, with international students to be able to enter the country but only on “pre-approved plans” for “particular institutions”.

The particular universities were not specified, however Mr Morrison did single out the ACT in his statement — home of The Australian National University (ANU).

“There’s still a lot of work to do and that needs to get in place,” he said.

“We’ve received some very, I think, well thought-through proposals from states as to how this can be done.

“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 [are] being addressed.”

The university sector has been lobbying behind the scenes for what’s known as a “secure corridor framework” where students could return in yet-to-be-determined numbers subject to strict health checks and with the cooperation of the aviation industry.

The higher education sector cautiously welcomed Friday’s announcement, which comes after a major lobbying effort from the sector on behalf of international students, which make up as much 30 to 40 per cent of some university’s admissions.

An empty university lecture hall.
Universities have been more like ghost towns since the coronavirus pandemic hit.(Unsplash: Nathan Dumlao)

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson described the pilot plan as a “sensible approach”.

“Universities Australia has been talking to the Federal Government about an overarching framework for a safe return for some time,” she said.

“It is good to see progress today with specific pilot proposals under consideration.”

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt said the university was “looking forward to welcoming our students back to Canberra”.

“We’ve missed them and it’s been tough on them being away from the city and campus.”

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates Australia’s higher education sector generated a record $15.9 billion in international student tuition fees in 2018-19.

It is estimated that, Australia-wide, revenue for universities will drop by $3 billion this year.

China storm continues

The announcement comes amid a diplomatic storm with China, a country that makes up 27 per cent of all international students into the country.

This week China’s Education Bureau took the rare step of warning Chinese students about studying in Australia because of “racist incidents” during the coronavirus pandemic.

The notice also warned students that coronavirus still presented a risk if they planned to resume their studies overseas.

Responding to the accusations of racism and the ensuing diplomatic storm with China, the Prime Minister said Australia had done “nothing to injure” its relationship.

“What Australia will always do is act in our national interests in accordance with our values,” he said.

“We’ll do so consistently and with consistency, and we will respect that comprehensive strategic partnership.

“And when it comes to our record of multiculturalism, of freedom of religion, of liberty, treating everybody equally — I’m happy to stack Australia’s record up all around the world.”