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Australia records over 99% decline in international student arrival numbers in January

Source: Getty Images/Kiyoshi Hijiki

The latest figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reveal a drastic drop in international student arrival numbers in the month of January.

Last January, a total of 91,250 international students touched down in Australia, according to ABS data. With Australia’s international borders firmly closed, this January, only 360 arrived, registering a decrease of 99.6 per cent compared with the same month in 2020.


  • Only 360 international students arrived in Australia in January 2021
  • International student numbers in Australia have dropped to 374,000
  • Peak education body says travel bubble with Singapore must be fast-tracked to facilitate the return of foreign students

'Singapore travel bubble must be fast-tracked to let in international students'

Phil Honeywood, CEO of Australia’s peak education body, International Education Association of Australia (IEAA), said the significant drop in student arrivals is “not surprising.”

“Australia being one of the only student education markets that have got its borders totally closed, this is not surprising,” he told SBS Punjabi.

Earlier this week, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said that Australia is working with Singapore to open up an international travel bubble as early as July.

According to a report in Sydney Morning Herald, the deal would allow Australians who have been vaccinated for COVID-19, to travel to Singapore without approval from the Department of Home Affairs or the need to quarantine.

Down the track, it could also allow people from other countries, such as international students to return to Australia via Singapore after completing two weeks' quarantine in the city-state.

Phil Honeywood
International Education Association of Australia CEO Phil Honeywood

Sounding hopeful, Mr Honeywood said the Singapore travel zone could address the growing concerns of Australia’s education sector and businesses that have been hard-hit by the absence of overseas students and has dealt a $9 billion blow to the economy.

“The recent announcement of Singapore as a potential international student entry portal back to Australia needs to be fast-tracked as soon as possible,” he said.

“The best example is the precedent established by the Northern Territory Government, where all 63 of the returning students of Charles Darwin University last September, came through Singapore. They were only allowed to come from the five countries that Singapore Airport allowed for transit, including China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Vietnam and Japan,” said Mr Honeywood.

“Now obviously, we’d want the Singapore authorities to ensure that India and Nepal, the Subcontinent countries, are also included,” he added.

Latest government figures show there are currently 374,000 primary student visa holders in the country, down from 580,000 shortly before the pandemic struck last year.

Simultaneously, the number of student visa applications from the top two source countries – India and China – has also registered a significant drop amidst uncertainty around travel.

Only 10,549 applications were lodged from India in the second half of 2020. This is a decline of 48.4 per cent in new student visa applications compared with the same period in 2019, as per the latest numbers revealed by the Department of Home Affairs.

International students
Akshit Bhasin
Supplied by Mr Bhasin

International student Akshit Bhasin who travelled to India in March last year, said the Singapore travel bubble sounds promising, but he wouldn't pin his hopes on the agreement until the government implements the plan.

"We have been fed countless assumptions ever since the borders were slammed shut nearly a year ago. Though a travel corridor with Singapore sounds promising, I wouldn't want to raise my hopes until it is actually implemented," he said.

The 21-year-old, who is pursuing a motor mechanics course from Sydney, said jurisdictions within Australia should pitch plans in unison to safeguard the interests of local businesses and foreign students stuck offshore.

"Not long ago the New South Wales government had proposed to use Hobart hotels for quarantining students. While the plan was reportedly dismissed by the Tasmanian government, it could have been a win-win situation for both states," Mr Bhasin said.

International students
There are currently 374,000 primary student visa holders in Australia, as per the latest government data.
Getty Images

The dramatic dip in student arrival numbers has prompted industry bodies, universities and other stakeholders, including student accommodation businesses, to table elaborate plans such as a dedicated quarantine program for returning students.

Outlining the details of one such plan, Mr Honeywood said the IEAA is working closely with the student accommodation industry to get government approvals for properly inspected and audited student accommodation towns instead of hotel quarantine.

“The industry is prepared to pay for the costs of logistics including police, defence force and security guards as per the chief medical officer’s regulations in all states and territories,” he stated.

Meanwhile, the federal government remains firm on its stand to use the country’s limited quarantine capacity for an estimated 40,000 Australians seeking to return home.

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge said the government would consider any proposals from universities.

"But it must be quarantine beds above those already in existence and must be signed off by the state's chief medical officer," he told ABC.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 meters away from others. Find out what restrictions are in place for your state or territory.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments.

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