Government re-opens borders to international students

The federal government has re-opened Australia’s borders to hundreds of thousands of international students and other travellers after imposing a ban on them entering the country nearly two years ago.

Responding to growing demands from Australian business and education groups for the bans to be lifted, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the return to open borders last Monday.

Morrison called his latest announcement “an important step forward”, saying that under the relaxed rules eligible visa holders would be allowed to return without needing a special exemption.

The government expects the decision will draw an estimated 200,000 travellers back to Australia between December and January, with those eligible to return including students and skilled workers, as well as refugees and temporary visa holders.

But the Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews, said newcomers would have to return a negative COVID-19 test in the three days prior to arriving in Australia.

New ‘travel bubbles’

The prime minister also announced new ‘travel bubbles’ with Japan and South Korea. The decision follows the opening of a two-way agreement with Singapore on Sunday, allowing students, families and migrants to return to Sydney and Melbourne.

But returning visa holders must be double vaccinated and have proof of a negative COVID-19 test before travelling.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said the announcement about foreign students returning to Australia was “great news which would give heart” to the more than 130,000 students with visas waiting to return to Australia.

“They want nothing more than to re-join their classmates in Australia,” Jackson said.

“We look forward to further detail from the government so we can work quickly to get students back for the first semester next year.”

Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight universities, said the announcement gave universities “much needed certainty” and “signals the beginning of an exciting new phase for Australia’s fourth largest export industry – international education”.

The states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, as well as the Australian Capital Territory or ACT, have already announced the opening of their borders to foreign students.

The first of a series of special flights from nations overseas has been organised by universities in New South Wales and the ACT. The first of these special flights arrives in Sydney on 6 December.

The Queensland government has also lodged a plan to accommodate thousands of students with the federal government for approval.

Students warned

Federal authorities have warned that returning students will have to adhere to state and territory quarantine rules, although there is an increasing trend towards no quarantine for fully vaccinated students.

Fully vaccinated South Korean and Japanese students who hold a valid visa will also be able to enter without undergoing quarantine.

Across Australia, universities and businesses have begun a phased re-opening since reaching vaccination targets. More than 85% of Australian over-16s are now fully vaccinated.

But the pandemic’s ‘choke-hold’, as it is called, on international travel has highlighted Australia’s economic dependence on foreign labour and international students.

The international education sector earned Australia an estimated AU$40 billion (US$29 billion) in 2019, making it the country’s fourth-biggest export after iron ore, coal and gas.

But commencements in the higher education sector have declined by more than 40% since the peak recorded in August 2019, with new starters now falling to just above the level recorded in August 2013, according to Universities Australia.

“The value of international students to Australia is more than just the impact they have on the economy and employment, though their AU$31 billion annual economic contribution and support for 250,000 jobs is important,” Jackson said.

“These students are the future corporate and political leaders of our nearest trading partners. They make an enormous contribution to Australia’s influence in the world.”