return to australia
Two shoppers on scooters make their way down the normally busy shopping precinct of Collins Street in Melbourne on July 22, 2020. Source: William WEST/AFP

Over 1,000 international students have obtained exemptions to return to Australia amid the pandemic, with medical students forming part of the cohort, reported Figures obtained by NCA NewsWire reveal that the Australian Border Force Commissioner has granted 1,050 foreign nationals an exemption to enter the country since the start of August.

Those seeking an exemption must provide evidence of a “compelling case” and meet exemption categories, which includes students in their final two years of study of a medical, dental, nursing or allied health profession university degree, an Australian Border Force spokeswoman was quoted saying. They must also have a confirmed placement at an Australian hospital or medical practice that starts within the next two months.

One university in the Group of Eight (Go8) had at least half of their 65 international medical students granted a travel exemption, said the report. The Go8 comprises Australia’s leading research-intensive universities. Its chief executive Vicki Thomson said the universities had provided supporting evidence for students that fit the exemption criteria, adding that some 600 international graduates entered the workforce every year but COVID-19 had caused serious disruptions. 

Rural, regional and remote communities relied heavily on overseas student graduates from Australian medical schools. “If medical students can’t get back into the country, then this will impact the pipeline of new doctors into the system over the next few years,” said Thomson. “There will be a shortfall.” There was also a risk that the intern system would not be able to handle the influx of international students when they returned if they deferred their studies now. Meanwhile, a Universities Australia spokesman said some PhD students may have also received exemptions on the grounds they must return to complete research critical to their degree.

A skilled force’s return to Australia sparks backlash from some quarters

Australia closed its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents on March 20, 2020. Source: Peter Parks/AFP

The decision to allow a small number of international students to return to Australia sparked the ire of some. Labor Senator for New South Wales Kristina Keneally argued that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s priority should be on returning the 40,000 Australians stuck abroad instead of “letting international students and business investor visa holders jump the queue.” “If Scott Morrison had implemented a national quarantine plan from the beginning of this pandemic, Australia would be in a position to safely welcome international students without their arrival coming at the expense of stranded Australians,” she was quoted saying.

The government was also criticised for allowing British pop star Rita Ora to enter Australia ahead of filming for her role as a coach on The Voice, reported The Guardian. Last month,  International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) CEO Phill Honeywood tweeted his dismay that the government didn’t allow a small number of international students into the country but “is relaxed about tennis, cricket players and their entourages coming here for a few weeks”.

Speaking to, Honeywood said he welcomed the limited travel exemptions made available but acknowledged that the country is “still way behind competitor countries such as Canada, the UK and New Zealand.” Healthcare-related courses such as nursing degrees are popular among international students from South Asia, while dentistry and medicine attracted students from across the globe. High commissions are also understood to have written supporting letters to student exemption applications, said the report.

International students have been campaigning for their return to Australia for close to a year. Over 17,000 people have signed a petition addressed to the House of Representatives calling for international students’ exemption from Australia’s COVID-19 travel border restrictions. “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.

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.