International student arrivals would recommence from countries deemed safe and be subject to self-funded quarantine requirements under a plan put to federal and state governments by the elite Group of Eight universities.
The “secure corridor” framework could allow for students to return en masse subject to strict health checks and with the co-operation of government agencies and the aviation industry, according to the proposal being considered by federal and state leaders and obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
The first step of the framework – which could allow students currently overseas commencing or renewing their studies by first semester 2021 – would be a “rigorous protocol for selecting eligible source countries” that had contained the spread of COVID-19.
Countries’ control of the coronavirus would be demonstrated by sustained low infection rates, high testing rates and an ability to deal with outbreaks. The source countries would also have a record of compliance with visa conditions and students “may be required” to download the COVIDSafe contact tracing app.
Students would be subject to pre-travel isolation and health checks in their home countries and then be flown to Australia with a “trusted Australian carrier”. The strategy calls for co-operation with airlines to facilitate flights and deal with pricing.
Students would then go into designated quarantine accommodation, which they would pay for themselves. Universities would take charge of airport pick-ups and escort students to the accommodation. Quarantine would be closely monitored to ensure compliance.
“International students are keen to return to Australia to either continue or commence their tertiary studies,” the strategy states. “Universities can and are committed to providing a fully facilitated safe-return process with the support of the government.”
Federal, state and territory governments have been briefed on the framework proposed by the Group of Eight, and health officials and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s COVID-19 co-ordination commission have been consulted.
The framework is intended to lay out nationally consistent principles that could be adapted in different states and territories based on local COVID-19 policies.
Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said the immediate priority was meeting the needs of domestic students but universities needed to plan for the revival of international student arrivals “when the time is right” subject to government approval.
“Whilst we are optimistic that this framework might assist governments to look at a possible small scale re-entry of our international students in some states in the next three to four months, realistically we would expect to see the bulk of our students back for semester 1, 2021,” Ms Thomson said.
About 120,000 students, or 20 per cent of total international enrolments in Australia, have been stranded offshore by the pandemic and travel restrictions. Universities are facing major financial blows, estimated at $3 billion to $4.6 billion in the next six months as revenue losses deepen in second semester.
New analysis from Australian National University higher education researcher Andrew Norton estimates 27 per cent of Australian university research spending is funded by international student fees, illustrating the sector’s significant reliance on the revenue.
Modelling from Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute estimates $30 billion to $60 billion could be wiped from the Australian economy because of international students being blocked.
The government’s road to recovery, released earlier this month, includes the possible return of international students as part of stage three.
On Wednesday, Health Minister Greg Hunt said universities were welcome to put forward proposals for international student arrivals to restart.
“We have indicated we are welcoming of proposals for universities, subject to it being at the same time as their general student populations, to look at a means of bringing back – through supervised, stringent quarantine – international students,” Mr Hunt said.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said on Thursday the quarantine process for returning Australians had been effective and could be used to get international students arriving again.
“There’s no reason why, in the future, we shouldn’t consider allowing students to go through that process, to make sure they’re 100 per cent safe before they go to university,” she said.
A spokesman for the Victorian government said international students made a valuable contribution to the state.
“We look forward to welcoming new international students to Victoria when it is safe to do so and look forward to discussing this at national cabinet,” the spokesman said.