Almost a quarter of international university students who are enrolled in Australia are still overseas and it's feared many may not come back.
International students stuck in China are pleading with the Australian government to let them return in time for the start of semester two in July, saying their education and careers are at risk.
Chinese student Greta Fei was due to return to Melbourne on 21 March - one day after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a ban on all non-permanent residents or citizens entering the country in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Since then, she has been attending her classes online from her home in Shanghai.
"I don’t feel engaged, I feel more comfortable studying on campus. The internet connection here is not stable and we need a VPN to access the university website," Ms Fei told SBS News.
The experience has forced her to rethink her plans for the rest of the year.
"I think I will defer for a semester if this travel ban continues... after I've experienced the online tutorials, I don't think it's suitable for me."
International students pay a premium to attend Australian universities, but many have been left wondering whether it is worth it if the travel ban continues to keep them away from campus.
Flora Zhao, a law student at the University of Sydney, is also stuck in China after finding herself on the wrong side of Australia's travel ban.
With her tuition costing upwards of $44,000 per year, Ms Zhao said it did not seem fair that the Australian Government had not yet given international students a firm return date.
"I used to go to class every day and see my friends and teachers, now it's just my laptop, my room and the fact that I'm thousands of miles away from where I should be," she said.
"There is no reduction in fees at all, and the funny thing is we still pay administration fees, but I haven’t been on campus this entire time, so exactly what service have I used?"
Ms Zhao has been trying to work across time zones, often having to sit exams at 6am, but said she is seriously concerned about her career prospects if she is forced to stay away from Sydney for much longer.
"I had everything planned out for when I was meant to go back to try to find an internship and prepare for my career, my future, but now I don’t know where this leaves me," she said.
"Now, I don’t know when I’m going to go back and I don’t know when I’m going to get a job - the job market is really, really bad and it was already hard enough for international students."
Universities are equally anxious
With $14 billion riding on the return of international students, NSW is leading the push to get them an exemption from the coronavirus travel bans which are likely to remain in place for months.
On Thursday, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she believed there was no reason international students should not be able to return to Australia under the same mandatory quarantine scheme that has been credited with helping to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections.
But it is not only students who are eager to see a commitment to their return.
University of Sydney Vice Chancellor Michael Spence said his university and the wider economy would only suffer the longer international students are kept away.
"Of our $2.8 billion in revenue, about $1.2 billion comes from international students," he told SBS News.
"If the international students are not able to return to Australia’s universities, there’s a real threat that our research activity as a nation is going to be significantly hampered, and for every dollar we invest in research at our university, there’s a $7.82 return to the NSW economy."
Ms Berejiklian said she was particularly worried about regional universities such as Charles Sturt University (CSU), which could "struggle to keep their doors open" without a boost from international enrolments.
CSU Vice Chancellor Andrew Vann said it was "critical" that universities like his could welcome international students back to their campuses.
"At Charles Sturt, we have a decline in revenue of $80 million, the majority of which is associated with our international program," he said.
"This must be balanced with safety and in line with announcements from the federal government. The university is working on our phased recovery plan to ensure we can return to teaching, learning, research and working from the office with the appropriate safety measures in place."
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said the government was considering reopening Australia's borders for international students, but did not indicate if that would happen in time for the new semester.
"When it comes to universities, our priority is for campuses to be fully operational with COVID-19 safe protocols in place," he said.
"There are many steps to work through with educational institutions, including details of quarantine arrangements and how the cost of quarantine would be met.”
In September 2019, Australia had 720,150 international students enrolled in its tertiary institutions.
Additional reporting by Bethan Smoleniec and Maani Truu.
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