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NSW pushes plan to bring international students to Australia using purpose-built quarantine

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Mark Baker/AP</span>
Photograph: Mark Baker/AP

New South Wales is planning on bringing international students back into the state within months, using a 600-bed purpose-built quarantine site, only days after the federal government said students would not return in large numbers until 2022.

The state treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, has told the Australian newspaper that some students could return as early as semester two – which starts at most NSW universities in August.

Phil Honeywood, the chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, confirmed the plan to Guardian Australia, and said that a 600-bed student accommodation site had been approved to be converted into quarantine.

Under the plan, returning international students would quarantine in converted accommodation for 14 days. The student arrivals would be counted under a separate arrival cap and would not take away spaces from returning Australian citizens and other international arrivals.

Honeywood said the plan would aim to bring in a few hundred students for semester two to “prove the model”.

“It involves chartered flights rather than taking commercial seats off returning Australians,” he said. “It involves an alternative quarantine setting to hotels, which is what the prime minister is keen on.

“They are only going to start with small numbers to begin with, in the low hundreds, in order to prove the model,” he said.

He said the plan had been approved by NSW’s Department of Premier and Cabinet, and that the quarantine site – an existing, empty student accommodation building – had been inspected by both the government and police.

“Approval has been given for one of them, potentially two, to be used as the student return plan for quarantine,” he said.

Perrottet said on Thursday morning: “We are close to finalising a plan to start bringing back students very soon over the coming months, ideally for the start of the second semester this year.

“This is about finding a way to bring students back but not at the expense of the weekly cap of Australian citizens arriving back in NSW … If we don’t address this issue then I believe we’ll have an industry on its knees and one that will look elsewhere.”

However, the plan still would require the approval of the federal education minister, Alan Tudge.

In Tuesday’s budget the federal government said it did not expect Australia’s borders to open until mid-2022.

Budget paper No 1 said “small phased programs for international students” could start in late 2021 but numbers would not “gradually increase” until 2022.

“The rate of international arrivals will continue to be constrained by state and territory quarantine caps over 2021 and the first half of 2022,” it said.

Student advocates have been suggesting a similar plan from as early as January this year, under which empty student housing would be used for quarantine, and universities and students themselves would pay.

Honeywood told Guardian Australia in January: “We put to the Victorian government a plan for separate quarantine in purpose-built student accommodation. We wouldn’t take up any hotel beds. The international students and the education providers would pay. The taxpayer wouldn’t pay anything.”

Related: Australian universities brace for ‘ugly’ 2022 after budget cuts

International students are estimated to bring in $40bn to the Australian economy a year – which includes retail and other spending as a result of being present in Australia. The NSW government estimates that students bring $14.6bn a year into the state.

Overseas students are still enrolling at Australian universities even as borders are closed, and are studying online from their home countries.

A report from Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute last month found that $20bn of that economic benefit would be lost if students continued to learn online.

And another report in April found that only 7% of international students enrolled at Australian universities were willing to study purely online. The vast majority would only enrol if they could “transition to face-to-face” learning.

Countries who compete with Australia for international students, such as Canada, the UK and the US, have more open borders.

In January Honeywood said Victoria had let in tennis players for the Australian Open and the federal government had allowed cricketers in, and that international students contributed more to the Australian economy, over more years, than sportspeople.

“Those professional sportspeople are only here for three weeks … compared to international students who are here for three to four years,” he said.

At the end of 2020, a pilot program brought 63 students back to Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory but this has not been replicated.

The NSW government began calling for expressions of interest to run the student quarantine program in April.

Previous plans to bring in international students, including the plans from the Victorian government in January, have been abandoned as Australia’s quarantine caps, virus outbreaks and vaccine rollout have changed.

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