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Will the first batch of international students return to Australia before Christmas?

A primeira leva de alunos viajará para Darwin a partir de quatro países que têm permissão para transitar por Cingapura. Source: Getty Images/martin-dm

Australia is under increasing pressure to launch the first pilot to bring up to 300 international students back to South Australia, as universities in the UK consider charter flights to fly back Chinese students to campuses in Britain.

In August, it seemed certain that the first batch of international students would return to Australian shores by the last week of September, as the SA government announced it would bring back a small number of overseas students to its university campuses in Adelaide.


  • South Australia likely to receive final approval to a pilot plan to bring back international students soon
  • Up to 300 international students are expected to return to Australia via Singapore before Christmas
  • Only 40 student visa holders returned to Australia in July 2020

Now, even as the end of September is approaching, the plan has still not received final approval from the federal government as it continues to encounter pushback in the wake of the backlash from over 24,000 Australians who remain stranded overseas due to flight caps.

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall
South Australian Premier Steven Marshall

In a statement to SBS Punjabi about the progress on the plan, an SA government spokesperson said the state is currently ironing out the final logistics of the pilot program.

The South Australian Government is working closely with the Commonwealth and relevant agencies to ensure a pilot program provides a safe return for up to 300 international students. At this stage, final logistics are being worked through

Will international students return to Adelaide before Christmas?

While the state hasn’t committed to a renewed timeline ever since its announcement of the pilot in late August, Premier Steven Marshall has, however, indicated that he would like to launch the trial before Christmas.

“Our CBDs around the country are looking pretty forlorn with no international travellers, no international students and many people working from home.

“And we have got to be putting strategies in place to address that and one of the things that we put forward in South Australia is proof of concept with up to 300 students be repatriated into SA before Christmas,” Mr Stevens told ABC Radio.

‘Just let us come back’

The slow advancement of programs for the return of international students threatens to prolong the agony for Australia’s $40 billion international education sector, with over 200,000 existing international students stranded offshore by the pandemic-induced border closure.

International students in Australia.
Gagandeep Singh is an international student currently stranded in north India.

Melbourne-based art student Gagandeep Singh travelled to the northern Indian state of Punjab to visit his family only for a few days in March.

The 28-year-old said high tuition fee, combined with a push towards online classes and what he described as a general lack of support for students stuck overseas has forced him to defer his study until January next year.

“I have already paid over $6,000 for the first semester. Now the institute wanted me to pay the tuition for the second semester, but I wasn’t keen to study online. It left me with no choice but to defer my COE until next year,” he said.

Mr Singh who has been leading a group of nearly 200 international students stranded in India said the students were ready to comply with all health guidelines and pay for their quarantine, but it’s the Australian government that needs to step up and allow them to fly back into the country.

“We are ready to get a pre-flight COVID test and also upon landing. We will arrange funds to pay for our hotel quarantine, just let us come back or at least give us a timeline so we can plan our life accordingly,” he added.

International students
Will international students be returning to Australia this year? (Representational image).
Getty Images/martin-dm

But Education Minister Dan Tehan has said “it’s very hard” to predict when they will be allowed to re-enter the country. It is understood that the Morrison government is expected to prioritise finding a resolution on internal border bans and caps on international arrivals before giving its consent to SA to fly back its international students.

“That’s why National Cabinet has agreed that we will commence pilots as soon as we can get issues sorted within state borders, but also with those returning Australians who need to come back, and the caps that are in place at the moment,” Mr Tehan told ABC’s The Business program last week.

100% dip in student arrival numbers:

Only 40 student visa holders returned to Australia in July clocking a 100% dip compared to the student arrivals in the same month last year, as per the latest ABS data.

Punjab-based migration agent Navjot Singh said the future of the student arrivals now rests upon the success of the pilot program.

“If the SA gets a go ahead and successfully brings back its first batch of students, it is highly likely that the other states would follow with their own plans and would hopefully be ready to open its doors to more source countries, including India before next year’s semester 1 intake,” said Mr Singh.

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