return to Australia
The first flight carrying international students to return to Australia landed in Darwin today, a hopeful sign of similar flights to come. Source: Charles Darwin University

A small group of international students is now back in Australia, following the success of the first pilot programme organising their return to Australia since the country shut its borders on March 20. The charter flight landed in Darwin this morning, carrying 63 international students from China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Japan and Indonesia.

Charles Darwin University (CDU) Vice-Chancellor Professor Simon Maddocks said CDU was leading the nation by becoming the first university to organise international students’ return to Australia to study.  “The flight contained a mix of new and continuing students who are enrolled in a range of undergraduate, postgraduate and VET programmes including Law, Nursing, IT, Teaching, Accounting and Engineering,” says Professor Maddocks.

The students are set to follow this process: transfer from airport to Howard Springs quarantine facility, undergo 14 days of quarantine, move to a range of central locations. During the quarantine, students can expect to have access to 24-hour counselling, receive care packages from CDU staff, in addition to daily phone calls from staff to ensure students are supported during their quarantine. “They will be studying at our Casuarina, Waterfront, Palmerston and Alice Springs campuses and are very excited to come to the Northern Territory to study,” Professor Maddocks said. There will be an event to welcome them on Casuarina campus post-quarantine.

‘Important first step’

The arrival of students today marks the successful completion of a plan that had taken months to plan between the university, state government and federal government. Setbacks and uncertainty plagued the programme — the initial flight date in October had to be rescheduled to Nov. 30, 2020 to allow students extra time to obtain visas; Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced mid-November that other pilot programmes are paused to prioritise citizens’ return.

Their return today — and recent news of effective vaccine roll-outs by early 2021 — is a positive sign that others can make the same journey back. “International students are vitally important to CDU. It has been a tremendous effort by our staff to make this pilot programme a reality,” says Professor Maddocks.

Over 210,000 international students have been unable to enter Australia since it shut its borders to curb the spread of the virus. Many Chinese students were unable to enter Australia before the start of semester one in 2020 and remain outside Australia. Total enrolments are down by 12% since March 2020 — new students are not replacing current students as they finish their courses.

Shrinking enrolments and fewer international students inside the country are costly to the Australian economy. About 57%, or 21.4 billion Australian dollars, of the A$37.5 billion associated with the international education sector comes from spending on goods and services. In 2019, international students generated A$145 million to the Northern Territory’s economy, supporting more than 600 jobs. The arrival of CDU students today is expected to boost the university and the Northern Territory.

More international students to return to Australia?

With the March 2021 intake only four months ahead, many are referring to the pilot programme as proof that international students’ return to Australia can be done safely and with benefit to the local economy. CDU Deputy Vice-Chancellor Global Strategy and Advancement, Andrew Everett confirmed the programme has strictly adhered to all health and safety measures as directed by the Chief Health Officer of the NT, including pre-departure health requirements, COVID-19 testing and quarantine upon arrival.

“CDU is hopeful that following the success of this initial pilot that CDU will be able to welcome more students to Darwin and CDU in 2021,” CDU said on its website. There is, however, nothing confirmed yet at this stage.