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Victorian universities propose charter flights, quarantine capacity for international students

Victorian universities
Victorian universities are fleshing out a proposal to bring international students back to Australia. Source: William West/AFP

Victorian universities are fleshing out a proposal to fly students back to Australia and quarantining them in the same Melbourne city hotels used by Australian Open players in January, reported The Age. In response to the report, Australian Minister for Education and Youth Alan Tudge confirmed that they have not received a proposal. “We are open to considering a pilot of international students coming into Oz but only if (A) the quarantine beds are in addition to those used for returning Aussies; and (B) the state’s CMO gives all clear. To date, we have received no such proposals,” he tweeted on April 8.

According to the report, the university-backed proposal will see some 1,000 international students flown into Melbourne every two to three weeks and placed into special hotel lockdown arrangements. Universities have offered to help pay for flights, medical testing, transport, and quarantine facilities. Students and the state government would also make contributions to the scheme. Once medically cleared, students would be able to return to their respective institutions. 

Australian universities are growing increasingly frustrated with the federal and state government over the thousands of students who remain stuck abroad. The international education task force includes Melbourne, Monash, RMIT and Deakin universities and state government agency Global Victoria. They have held a series of meetings to discuss how to bring stranded international students back into Victoria. The state government, however, has yet to approve the plan and refused to comment on the issue, except to say they will not bring students back “until it is safe to do so.”

The proposal by Victorian universities received mixed reviews online. On Twitter, user Dave Auth said: “These universities are a menace and this proposal is a slap in the face to all Victorians. Intl students can study online from their home countries just fine. People have been doing online degrees for 20 years. And the students are not ‘stranded’, they are at home!” Another user, Aust, said: “It’s very serious to bring people back can trigger one more lockdown as their home countries has so many cases. Why can’t they do online education unless they don’t have other intentions. Futher PHD/Research ppl should not be allowed to teach as they are not right qualified ppl.”

Another user, Rahul Gupta, said: “I would request all the students not to get into their words, I have seen such statements many times before. It’s a pre-tested plan, whenever the time of adm. comes, they start talking about their ‘so-called plans’ which are later rejected.” User Lovie003 said: “We are literally tired of hearing these types of news everyday. Do something guys at least speak out for us.”

Victorian universities’ plan will not affect Australians’ return

The first stage of the scheme would be limited to hotels run by government agency COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria, but organisers hope this would later include purpose-built student accommodation, much of which is currently sitting empty. Victorian universities have mulled several flight options to bring students back to Australia, including direct commercial trips between China, India and Melbourne; charter flights from a hub in either Singapore or Kuala Lumpur; or charter flights from Shanghai and Mumbai to Melbourne. The plan would not seek to reduce the number of Australians allowed back.

The Andrews state government, however, must put forward a plan to the federal government for approval before they can arrive in the state. Previously, 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,” said Tudge. 

The New South Wales (NSW) government is considering an alternative hotel quarantine programme for international students to return to Australia. It has advertised an expression of interest, which closes on April 12. “The return of international students as soon as possible is vital for retaining jobs in our education sector, and for the economy more broadly,” it said.