Indian international students
Despite a pandemic ravaging the world, the presence of Indian international students has been growing in UK universities. Source: Prakash Singh/AFP

Charles Darwin University (CDU) is planning a series of charter flights to bring international students back to Australia, and Indians are next on the list. This comes after CDU’s pilot flight saw 63 international students return to Australia on Nov.30, 2020 — the first successful attempt after months of discussions and planning. It went on despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s mid-November announcement that international students’ return to Australia will be paused to prioritise citizens.

“Following the success of our first pilot flight on Monday, CDU is working with the Northern Territory and Australian governments to arrange further flights in 2021,” a CDU spokesperson told SBS Punjabi. The Council of International Education plans to charter a flight from India, but the relevant parties have yet to confirm the decision. The council’s six federal ministers and host of education experts met in Canberra on Dec. 3, 2020 where they decided to prioritise international student return in the new year.

“While COVID-19 has caused significant disruption to our international education sector, Australia remains a destination of choice for international students because of the high-quality of the education and lifestyle we offer, combined with our strong health response to the pandemic,” Minister for Education Tehan maintained after the meeting.

When will Indian international students return to Australia?

China and India are the two main source countries for international students in Australia. Indian students made up 15% of Australia’s international student population in 2019. Many were forced to fly home when campuses closed at the start of the pandemic, and have been stranded there since. COVID-19 travel restrictions have kept over 210,000 international students outside Australia.

“It is good news that at least CDU is considering students from India. This might wake up other states such as Victoria and New South Wales where most of the Indian students are enrolled to study,” opines Pavitra Chode, who is pursuing a postgraduate degree from the Melbourne Institute of Technology. She expressed feeling “abandoned,” especially since Indian students from other higher education hubs have started returning to their universities. Though the return of international students to other parts of Australia relies on federal government approval, all states have failed to submit their proposals thus far.

A recent survey suggested that Australia could lose its international students to “friendlier” countries like Canada and the UK — especially Chinese students, whose return to Australia is potentially complicated by geopolitical strain. Yet as International Education Association of Australia CEO Phil Honeywood told ABC News, they witnessed Chinese international students return to Australia on the first flight, too. The successful pilot flight — along with positive developments in the search for COVID-19 vaccines — are why education minister Tehan has an optimistic outlook on the future of international education in Australia.