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23,000 international students could return to universities in Victoria early next year

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The proposal aims to allow students to return to Victoria early next year and quarantine in student accommodation instead of hotels. Source: William West/AFP

International students could return to universities in Victoria as soon as January 2021 if a new proposal from the education sector comes through. The Victorian government is considering a proposal to fly up to 23,000 international students into Victoria early next year and allow them to quarantine in student accommodation, reported The Age. Many students have been left in limbo this year over uncertainty about exactly when Victoria’s borders will reopen.

The plan was put forward by a team of international education and accommodation groups who are aiming to bring back students without taking hotel quarantine places away from returning Australians. 

Scape, Australia’s largest student accommodation provider, is among the organisations behind the plan presented to the Victorian government. Scape executive chair Craig Carracher was quoted saying that, under the proposal, 23,000 international students would arrive between January 2020 and the university census date of April 30, 2020. They would arrive via chartered flights paid for by accommodation companies. Carracher said student buildings were purpose-built facilities with one entry point and individual rooms that housed a “compliant” cohort of international students.

“It’s a very different environment to a hotel and is more suitable for quarantining. We have a duty of care to students, we provide pastoral care, we have 24/7 security and management. Of course, it would take work alongside the government but we believe we have a solution to bring students back and springboard Victoria’s economic recovery,” Carracher told The Age. A Victorian government spokesman confirmed the proposal was under consideration. The International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) is also part of the student accommodation proposal.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian wants 1,000 students to return to the state every week from January while the Victorian government will not provide its strategy until retired judge Jennifer Coate hands down her report into the failures of the state’s hotel quarantine system on Dec. 21, 2020.

Universities in Victoria need a lifeline

International students could return to universities in Victoria as early as January 2021. Source: William West/AFP

Approximately 227,000 international students from 170 countries lived in Melbourne last year, contributing a whopping 13.7 billion Australian dollars in export revenue to Victoria’s coffers. There are many top universities Australian in Victoria, including Monash University, La Trobe University and RMIT University, among others. A lack of clarity over when Victoria’s borders will open to international students has been a source of frustration for the sector. IEAA chief executive Phil Honeywood has accused Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews’ government of neglecting the state’s most valuable industry.

The report said federal, state and territory leaders are expected to discuss plans for the return of international students, worth AU$40 billion to the economy nationwide, when they meet for national cabinet discussions on Friday. Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan previously said returning international students to Victoria was the state government’s responsibility and that the federal government’s focus was on bringing stranded Australians back to the country.

The federal government has tasked states with the responsibility for quarantine arrangements of returning students. This would allow Victoria to recover some of the 80,000 students who left the state this year as international borders were closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Honeywood told the portal that students could be tempted to study in other states who have been more forthcoming about their plans to reboot the industry. 

“Now we’ve come out of our second wave, Victoria needs to make this a top priority,” Honeywood was quoted saying. “Students are going to prefer any state they see to be more open for business than Victoria. We rely the most on international students of any state but have the least-formulated plan. I am genuinely worried.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison previously announced that international students’ return to Australia will be paused to prioritise citizens. Despite that, Charles Darwin University’s (CDU) pilot flight saw 63 international students return to Australia on Nov. 30, 2020. South Australia’s pilot programme was due to receive 300 students last month but was delayed to January due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

Honeywood said it’s important to get students back into the country “as soon as possible”, adding that Victoria’s problem was urgent as rival countries such as Canada and the UK had kept their doors open to international students throughout the year for face-to-face teaching. Research by student recruitment firm IDP Connect said globally, international students overwhelmingly (92%) favour quarantining rather than deferring their studies, a 15% increase from June 2020. 

“Online enrolments from Chinese students have been stable but our second and third biggest markets — Indian and Nepalese students — have started to soften,” said Honeywood. “This is also a schools issue. A large number of Victorian schools bring in thousands of students from countries such as China and they would need to be here by January.”

Trade Minister Martin Pakula, who oversees international students in Victoria, acknowledged the state’s second wave of COVID-19 had delayed plans for the return of students, and that his government was regularly speaking with the university sector and disagreed that Victoria was already losing its market share. “Victoria has been an incredibly welcoming destination for international students … this won’t be necessarily just an issue of Victoria against other states. The Australian international education market will be significantly challenged by other jurisdictions, like Canada is just one example,” he said.

Tehan said this week that Victoria had asked for more time to develop its international student plan after it was one of several states to miss a Nov. 30, 2020 federal deadline.