Australian government
According to reports, Australian government data shows that thousands of international students are still locked out of the country. Source: Saeed Khan/AFP

Thousands of international students have signed a petition addressed to the House of Representatives calling for their exemption from Australia’s COVID-19 travel border restrictions. Over 10,000 people have signed at the time of writing. According to the petition, many university students are struggling with the “bad quality” of online lessons. The petition added, “Lots of students do not have online classes and they have to be exempted to enter Australia to schools as soon as possible.” Critics have argued that the Australian government is not doing enough to facilitate the return of international students. This includes International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) CEO Phill Honeywood who tweeted that “our political community is relaxed about tennis, cricket players and their entourages coming here for a few weeks BUT not a small number of returning students!”

The petition also appeals for travel exemptions for international students not just for their future, but also for the recovery of Australia’s economy. “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.

Australian government data shows thousands of international students are locked out of Australia

Despite students’ eagerness to return to Australia, Australian government data shows that thousands of international students are still locked out of the country. Quoting the latest figures revealed by the Federal Department of Education, Skills and Employment, SBS Punjabi said 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.

New South Wales and Victoria, which together host the largest share of international students, were the worst hit. Over 60,000 students departed NSW, 56,824 left Victoria, resulting in an overwhelming loss of revenue and costing hundreds of jobs. The Department of Education, Skills and Employment said that the above data include a cohort of students who have finished their studies or are yet to start their studies.

Sydney radio station 2GB 873 reported via The Australian that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews will approach the National Cabinet with a proposal to create a separate quota for student arrivals within the state’s hotel quarantine system. The industry is worth 40 billion Australian dollars nationally and AU$8 billion in Victoria alone. In an interview with Joe Hildebrand, Honeywood said Andrews has floated the idea, but no one knows when or if it’ll eventuate. He added that New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian had proposed a similar scheme but later backed down when the northern beaches cluster emerged.

“There’s a bit of a game of pass the parcel going on between the federal and state governments. Because the Prime Minister [Scott Morrison] has indicated that quarantine is a state government responsibility, and that the chief medical officers in each state have suddenly become de-facto premiers in many cases, then … unfortunately the federal government can, when they choose to, wash their hands of this,” he said. The federal government, however, does control the country’s border force and plays a pivotal role with international airport arrivals. They also play a key role in influencing what state premiers will do.

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. Details of other pilot programmes to bring international students back to Australia have yet to be finalised.