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With COVID-19 ravaging throughout the world, the Morrison government is being very cautious about approving any new quarantine plans for anyone other than returning Australians. Source: William West/AFP

The Morrison government is “very cautious” in considering the Victorian government’s proposal to fly in 120 people — including international students — into the state from May 24. “We will consider Victoria’s quarantine proposal for international students carefully and cautiously,” responds Australian Minister for Education and Youth Alan Tudge on Twitter. “Our priority is the health and economic security of Australians which we do not want to jeopardise.”

The state’s proposal to the federal government will see 120 people — including international students, actors and film crew, and those travelling into the country for business — enter the country each week on top of its quota of returning Australians. Approximately half of the 120 spaces would be allocated to international students; the government would work with universities to determine which degrees could take precedence, said the report. According to The Age, Tudge has confirmed that Victoria was the first Australian state to submit a plan for international students.

“We just received the letter last night, and obviously we’ll carefully look at it, get the advice,” Tudge was quoted saying. “But I want to say that with COVID ravaging throughout the world at the moment, we need to be very cautious about approving any new quarantine plans for anyone other than returning Australians.” Tudge has reiterated that he is unable to make guarantees regarding when international students could return to Australia.

Last month, Tudge said he is “increasingly hopeful” that most international students could return to Australian universities by Semester 1 of 2022 with vaccine rollouts underway. “Since the beginning of the pandemic we have followed the health advice from Australian medical experts, and while I would like to provide certainty and predict a time at which we can welcome back international students in large numbers, I hope you all recognise that the unpredictability of this virus just does not allow me – or anyone else for that matter – to make guarantees,” he said previously. 

Conflicting messages from the Morrison government?

Morrison government

International students were left disappointed by the Morrison government after several pilot schemes were shelved. Source: David Gray/AFP

The Morrison government has tasked state governments to come up with a proposal to fly international students and foreign workers into the country. International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) CEO Phil Honeywood, however, has previously pointed out the discrepancy, saying: “When we directly lobby our federal politicians to promote student return plans, we are told that state/territory governments have full control of quarantine and we have to persuade them first. However, our discussions with state and territory politicians invariably produce the response that because the federal government controls [the] Border Force, the ADF and international airport arrival caps, they are the ones actually in control!

According to The Age, Canberra’s two conditions are that the plan must have been approved by the states’ chief health officers and must be in addition to the existing number of Australians returning every week. Tudge insisted Canberra’s priority is the health of Australians and their economic security. 

According to the Victorian government, international education has been Victoria’s largest services export industry for over a decade, generating more than 70 billion Australian dollars for the economy at that time. In 2019, the sector generated A$13.7 billion in export revenue for the state.

International education also supported almost 79,000 Victorian jobs in 2018. “Currently, Victoria accounts for almost one-third (32.3%) of Australia’s onshore international students and over the past two decades almost one million international students have graduated from a Victorian school, TAFE, college or university,” it said.

Universities have been pushing for a timeline for the return of international students since the country closed its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents on March 20, 2020.