As COVID-19 infections dramatically reduce in Australia, plans are afoot to significantly open the Australian economy. The Australian government has announced a pilot project to bring back international students to some universities as early as July. Australia has been able to manage its coronavirus cases to fewer than 500 active cases, allowing the government to reopen the economy in stages, including a plan to welcome back international students.
On 12 June, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke about the plan, which is part of “Stage 3” reopening of the economy. He said “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 explained that it would be “particular” institutions that will receive approvals arranged by federal, state, and territory authorities allowing them to receive international students. “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.”
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. 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. 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.
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 student. 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.
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.