Victoria plans for international students’ return with special quarantine housing | Australian universities
The Victorian state government is hoping to bring international students back into the state in 2021, as student advocates say they are happy to pay for quarantine and accommodation in a similar set-up to the 1,200 people allowed in for the Australian Open.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for the premier, Daniel Andrews, said the state was “working closely” with the federal government to bring international students back into Victoria, where they contribute $13.7bn a year to the state’s economy.
Despite the national cabinet announcing earlier in the month that arrival caps would be reduced, the Australian newspaper has reported that a potential plan to bring in students will be discussed at a meeting of the national cabinet on 5 February.
While the Victorian government has not shared any details of how many students it hopes to bring in, or how they would be quarantined, Phil Honeywood, the CEO of the International Education Association of Australia, said students and universities were willing to pay.
“We put to the Victorian government a plan for separate quarantine in purpose-built student accommodation,” Honeywood told Guardian Australia. “We wouldn’t take up any hotel beds. The international students and the education providers would pay. The taxpayer wouldn’t pay anything.”
Honeywood said Victoria had agreed to allow tennis players in for the Australian Open, and the federal government had allowed cricketers in – but that international students posed less of a virus risk, and contributed more to the economy over more years.
“While the sector understands the need for Australian citizens to be given priority, what we find hard to understand is 1,200 tennis players including their entourages, hundreds of cricket players and their entourages, and thousands of military personnel invited for training purposes have been able to come in,” he said.
“Those professional sportspeople are only here for three weeks. They have got much more [Covid] safety issues attached to them, compared to international students who are here for three to four years.”
Under the arrangements for the Australian Open, Victoria opened up three new hotels for quarantining tennis players and associated people, paid for by Tennis Australia. And in November, some international students returned to the Northern Territory and quarantined in the Howard Springs former mining camp after the territory government struck a deal with the federal government.
“The frustration is the Northern Territory government were able to prove it can be done,” Honeywood said. “They brought 63 returning international students from five different countries into Darwin in November. None of them had Covid. All of them went straight from the airport to quarantine and they have been happily studying at Charles Darwin University.”
Honeywood welcomed the Victorian government’s plan to bring students back, but said the federal and state governments needed to provide a “logistical or definite plan”.
“We have a virtual game of pass the parcel between different levels of government,” he said.
“When we speak to the federal government about border openings and pilot programs, they tell us to speak to the state government. State government tells us to speak to federal – because they control [the Australian] border force. The national cabinet’s decision only a week ago to cut the number of international arrivals by half clearly has not assisted our sector, our industry.”
The South Australian government had also arranged a program to bring in 300 international students in November, which was put on hold when the state had its short-lived second Covid wave.
Honeywood said the South Australian government had indicated that the students could be brought back in February but “there has been no announcement made by the state government”.
“In Victoria, apart from the headline in the Australian, the premier hasn’t given any indicative date or information. They haven’t indicated to us how many students they take in, or when. We are hoping it is not another state government giving a nod in our direction and not backing it up with any logistical or definite plan.”
According to the Victorian government, international students brought in $13.7bn for the state in 2019 and supported 79,000 jobs.
In 2019, the state had 250,000 international students, but that number halved to 120,000 due to the border closures brought on by the pandemic.
Honeywood said letting international students back into the country would have a multiplier effect on the country’s economy.
“According to government figures, 240,000 Australians work in the international education industry,” he said. “These are not just teaching jobs; they include people who work in student accommodation, in marketing and student support services. Already we have seen thousands of these jobs made redundant.
“Semester one is our main intake. If we don’t have any intake of any remaining students, it’s estimated to be an $8bn hit to the national economy, over the year.”
A spokesman for Andrews said: “The Victorian government is working closely with education providers and the Australian government to welcome international students back to Victoria when it is safe to do so.
“We will follow all protocols and preconditions set by the Australian government and adhere to the public health advice and directions set by the Victorian chief health officer.”