As the final details of Australia’s first pilot program to facilitate the return of international students into Adelaide are being ironed out, the Australian High Commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell has clarified that “there doesn’t seem enough certainty to plan a pilot for Indian students just yet.”
The High Commissioner on Tuesday said Indian students won’t be part of the pilot programs being considered by the federal and the state governments unless one of those plans propose direct access into India.
“I think the plan a few months ago was that students would congregate at hubs from all countries and jump on a plane to Australia.
“And as I said regrettably, Malaysia and Singapore which are so critical for travel to Australia still haven’t opened their ports to Indian citizens,” Mr O’Farrell said during a virtual convention organised by the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India (AAERI) yesterday.
- Indian international students may not be returning to Australia anytime soon
- "There doesn’t seem enough certainty to plan a pilot for Indian students just yet," says Mr O'Farrell
- International student visa applications from India plummeted by 47% in 2019-2020
The High Commissioner said that while his “inbuilt bias” would like to witness the return of all students from South Asian countries, the reality is that the participation of students from India is “largely logistical and determined by COVID-19.”
“While it is possible that by mid to late September, India will commence regular flights to other countries, there doesn’t seem enough certainty to plan a pilot for Indian students just yet,” he added.
‘We can’t keep the borders shut for too long’
India is the second-largest source of overseas students for Australia accounting for 15% of all overseas enrolments Down Under, second only to China.
But the number of Indians applying for student visas to Australia has plummeted by 47%, for the 2019-20 financial year, putting further strain on the country’s $40 billion a year international education sector amid COVID-19 induced restrictions.
Phil Honeywood, the chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia said while the latest offshore student visa application data from India is a “cause of concern,” it should not be forgotten that these figures were collated before the student visa changes were announced.
“These negative 47% of figures happened before the Immigration Minister announced the visa flexibility package and the clarification around the post-study work right visa eligibility for studying offshore online. We hope that the figure would improve for Indian intake next time we see the figures in one-month time,” he said.
Mr Honeywood said that Australia currently enjoys an advantageous position since it has been able to contain the outbreak better than most countries. He, however, added that the country risks losing that advantage if it chose to keep its international borders shut for too long.
“Another issue is that Australia may have what we call a health dividend or a COVID-19 safety dividend because we have been able to do better than most countries by having our borders closed and containing the virus.
“But of course, we have to be careful because if we keep our borders closed for too long, we may lose the advantage from having been saying we have contained the virus very well,” he said.
‘There is hope’
Addressing industry experts during the convention, Vicky Thomson, the chief executive of the Group of Eight, which represents eight leading Australian universities, took the opportunity to reassure stakeholders of the underlying demand of the Australian education degrees in India.
"We look forward to welcoming more students from India when our borders reopen," said Ms Thomson.
She said the group has been working with the federal and state governments to establish “secure corridors” to allow small cohorts of students to return to the country, subject to pre-departure isolation and strict health checks.
“These protocols would include strict hotel quarantine for two weeks before returning to university and health checks before leaving their country of origin and on arrival into Australia,” she said.
Ms Thomson said the students returning as part of the plan would be subject to the same treatment as hundreds of Australians who have been repatriated on Air India planes over the last few months.
“Such a corridor plan would be the same as we have seen used for the regular Air India planes full of Indian-Australians who have been given permission to re-enter Australia in the past few months. The last such plane I saw land in my home city of Adelaide was just two weeks ago. So, there is hope,” she said.
‘No mean task’
Adding to the narrative, Ravi Lochan Singh, the president of AAERI said while the plans to fly back international students sound optimistic, the implementation of such pilots would be a massive challenge for the Australian jurisdictions.
“To see new students arriving in Australia by the first intake or even arrive at all, the pilots will first have to fly back at least 100,000 existing students. The quarantine system and facilities will also have to be expanded to accommodate the number of students,” he said.
Mr Singh argued that there is an urgent need to reanoint Australia as the preferred study destination among students in India and to ensure they get value for their money.
“Many students choose to study in Australia not just to boost their earning capacity, but also to live the university experience, improve their lifestyle and prospects of a long term stay in the country and this is not something that can be replaced by remote education," he added.
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