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Universities propose COVID-19 tests and quarantine to enable return of international students to Australia

International students (Representational image). Source: Getty Images/PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou

International students could be the first cohort of temporary visa holders to return to Australia in time for the start of the second semester in July, as universities submit plans to the government to facilitate their return, under strict health and safety guidelines.

With billions in revenue riding on the return of international students, Universities Australia which represents the country’s 39 major universities, is leading the effort to pave way for the return of nearly 120,000 students currently stranded offshore due to the pandemic.


  • Peak university bodies submit proposals to enable the return of international students back to the campuses
  • Pre-departure COVID-19 tests and strict quarantine arrangements upon arrival have been proposed
  • Nearly 20 per cent of primary student visa holders are stranded outside Australia

As part of the initiative, UA has submitted a “comprehensive framework” to the federal government proposing a “gradual and safe” return of overseas students to the country.

Providing an insight into the proposal, UA Chief Executive Catriona Jackson told SBS Punjabi that “Universities and students need to be ready when the government decides to relax border restrictions.” 

“The gradual return of international students into Australia requires careful coordination between governments, universities, health and immigration authorities. Guiding principles ensure that safety and community welfare come first,” said Ms Jackson.

International students in Australia.
Universities Australia has developed a "comprehensive framework for the safe return of international students to Australia."
Getty Images/katleho Seisa

According to the proposal which was submitted to the federal government for consideration by the national cabinet last week, all incoming students will be required to undergo health checks prior to their arrival and mandatory quarantine after arrival into the country, reported The Australian.

Ms Jackson added that the universities will have a clear idea of the “ground rules” once the government decides to lift the travel ban for overseas students.

“Once the Government has agreed on the basic parameters of a safe return framework, universities will have a clearer idea of the ground rules, and further, more detailed discussions will take place,” she added.

The Australian government is under increasing pressure to exempt international students from the current coronavirus-induced travel ban, to get the country’s lucrative international education sector back on its feet.

Last month, the government indicated that it will consider lifting the border restrictions for international students as early as July, as part of stage three of the framework to ease coronavirus restrictions.

This means that if the government sticks to its plan, then students already enrolled in Australian universities would be back to the campuses in time for their second-semester studies.

International students
Group of Eight has proposed a "secure corridor" for return of overseas students
Getty Images/A-Digit

Following Prime Minister Scott Morrison's declaration of the three-step recovery plan, Health Minister Greg Hunt said universities should submit plans to look at means to bring back international students.

"We are welcoming of proposals for universities - subject to it being at the same time as their general student populations - to look at means of bringing back through supervised, stringent quarantine, international students," Mr Hunt told reporters in Melbourne last month.

As a result, the Group of Eight, which represents eight leading Australian universities, also put forward a pilot program to states and the federal government to introduce ‘secure corridor’ to enable the return of international students, subject to pre-departure isolation and strict health checks.

Confirming the submission of the proposal, the Go8 chief executive Vicki Thomson said: “We are excited to have all our students, domestic and international back on campus, but this is a long process to ensure safety for everyone.”

“Yes, we were asked how we would consider such a secure corridor could be possible, either late this year or early next year and we have put forward views such as quarantine etc to the States and Federal Government,” Ms Thomson told SBS Punjabi.

She added that the Go8 has not been given any timeline as to when the government would allow foreign students back into the country.

“Everything depends on the opening of our international borders for such a student corridor. That is a decision for Government we must wait for before we can progress anything,” she said.

International students contribute to about $39 billion a year to the Australian economy.

The sudden fall in the number of enrolments from overseas has pushed many universities into a financial crisis, a majority of whom are now urging the government to ease border restrictions.

Monash University claims it has been in talks with peak bodies, state and federal government about exploring ways to enable international students to commence their studies on the campus, since the beginning of the ongoing health crisis.

“Monash University is supportive of any plans to bring international students back to Australia in a safe and controlled way, including any quarantine requirements that may be required,” said a university spokesperson.

Canberra-based Australian National University also said it is in “active discussions” with the government and other education stakeholders to enable their return.

“We are actively working with both the Federal and ACT governments and health agencies to ensure that any return to campus is safe for our people and the wider community. We are working with the rest of the university sector on a possible return of international students in line with the Australian Government’s own plans,” said an ANU spokesperson.

Ever since the country closed its borders, the number of international higher education student arrivals has witnessed a sharp decline over the last three months, starting with a 41% drop in February to a further 10% fall in the month of March.

The numbers further took a downturn in April when student arrivals were reduced to just 30 compared to over 46,000 in the same period last year, according to the data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

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