universities in Canberra
International students show strong interest to study in Canberra despite the pandemic. Source: David Gray/AFP

If all goes well, international students could return to universities in Canberra by February 2021. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Chief Minister Andrew Barr has written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison to greenlight a plan to return international students from February 2021, said The Canberra Times. His plan includes alternating incoming flights of vulnerable Australians with flights of international students for the first three months of 2021.

The ACT government would pay for the security and COVID-19-related health checks while universities and students would pay for accommodation expenses as well as mental health and well-being services, said the report. The University of Canberra and Australian National University (ANU) have advised the ACT government they could begin returning overseas students by mid-February. Previously, a scheme to return international students to the territory was scrapped in July due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in Victoria. 

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan had previously written to all states and territories asking them to submit their plan for international student arrivals in 2021 by the end of November. The ACT government has submitted a proposal to the federal government after it got an extension on the Nov. 30, 2020 deadline.

Universities in Canberra bolstering efforts to ensure students have a quality study experience

It was previously reported that Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania have yet to provide a timeline for their plans for the return of international students in 2021 by the end of November 2020. Victoria and South Australia are working on their proposals while New South Wales government and Northern Territory governments are expected to submit their plans to the Morrison government soon. Tehan said the letter, sent to each government on Nov. 6, 2020, stated that the plans had to be signed off by the Premiers and their chief health officers, and needed to demonstrate how international students could be brought in safely after Christmas.

Barr said, “The single biggest economic decision we can make for most state and territory economies is to bring the students back safely. The impact is not just for one year, but four or five years of a degree.” International students are important sources of income for universities and the ACT before the pandemic. Education visitors accounted for 60% of overseas visitor expenditure in the territory.

Both ANU and the University of Canberra continue to see strong international student applications this year. The ANU 2019 annual report showed income from onshore and offshore overseas student fees amounted to almost 329 million Australian dollars, up from about AU$321 million in 2018. According to the report, it is understood international students will be paying the same fees in 2021 despite courses being offered by distance due to continuing restrictions on international arrivals.

On Nov. 30, 2020, a pilot programme by Charles Darwin University (CDU) welcomed the first batch of international students to Australia since the country closed its borders in March to non-citizens and non-residents. South Australia’s pilot scheme to bring 300 foreign students into the state last month was postponed to January 2021 due to a spike in COVID-19 cases.