Indian students
Nearly 13,000 Indian students are stranded outside Australia. Source: David Gray/AFP

India’s High Commissioner to Australia Gitesh Sarma said on Thursday that Indian students are “greatly valued” and “very, very important,” to Australia, addressing the concerns of nearly 13,000 nationals stranded abroad.

He would leave the reopening of borders to international students to the Morrison government, Sarma says in an interview with SBS Punjabi, but assures: “They are very greatly valued as international students in this country. Whenever we engage with the educational authorities here, they try to always make things as comfortable for our students as possible.”

Although he did not provide any concrete details for the return of Indian students, Sarma added, “They all realise that ultimately if they get international students to come here with the confidence that they will be looked after, then the universities have long-term prospects taken care of. So Indian students are very, very important,” says Sarma.

Responses to Sarma’s sentiments have been mixed:

Indian students plead to continue education

Sarma’s reassurance follows a petition addressed to the Australian House of Representatives calling for international students to be exempted from Australia’s COVID-19 travel border restrictions. Over 17,000 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.”

Indian students

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

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,” it read. “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.

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!”

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.