Prime Minister Scott Morrison has told states they must open their borders to Australians, before they can accept international students.
Some international students could be allowed to return to Australia on a "pilot basis" as soon as next month but only if states agree to open their borders, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced.
Addressing the media after a national cabinet meeting with state and territory leaders on Friday, Mr Morrison said the federal government was working with states and territories to enable international students to return in a "very controlled setting" and only under pre-approved plans provided by institutions.
But the Prime Minister made clear that if the states and territories wanted international students to return, they would have to "open up borders for Australians".
"I made clear to the states and territories today, if someone can't come to your state from Sydney, then someone can't come to your state from Singapore," Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
New South Wales and Victoria, which are the only two states to not close their borders, have been pushing the federal government to allow students stuck overseas to return for semester two, which typically begins around the end of July to the start of August.
Mr Morrison said some jurisdictions, including the ACT, had submitted "well-thought-through proposals", but added the government was still "a little way away on being able to advance on those proposals".
"This is something that I'm sure we would all welcome happening again, but it has to be done with the appropriate quarantine entry arrangements and biosecurity, and all of those matters, being addressed," Mr Morrison said.
Australian universities have warned they are set to lose up to $16 billion in revenue over the next four years due to coronavirus travel restrictions.
Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson welcomed the Prime Minister's announcement and said opting for a trial program was “a sensible approach.”
“The gradual reintroduction of international students into Australia requires careful planning with coordination between universities, governments across jurisdictions, health authorities and other key stakeholders,” she said.
“A pilot is an important first step to a larger-scale return of our valued international friends in the future.”
Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, also welcomed the announcement but said the "devil will now be in the detail".
"Will every state and territory government agree to sign up to a national approach? Or are we going to continue to have a patchwork quilt approach where certain states such as New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, have got first-mover advantage, while other states still decide what they're going to do," he said.
Under the pilot program, returning students who are part-way through an existing degree and already hold a student visa should be given priority, Mr Honeywood added.
"We anticipate that most of them [returning international students] will vote with their feet and come back to Australia with their student visa in their hand," he said.
"It would take many, many students to have to come back or new students before we could make up for the loss of revenue, however, any start or restart to international students re-entering the country will, of course, provide some benefit to education providers."
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said last month that she had been working towards opening borders for international students in a bid to save regional universities.
At the time, she said there was no reason the compulsory quarantine system being used for returning Australian citizens and permanent residents couldn't be used to process international students.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews last week also said he was hopeful of getting “international education back on its feet soon”.
South Australia has announced it will reopen its borders on 20 July, but Western Australia, Northern Territory, Queensland and Tasmania have not set a date to lift border restrictions.