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International students to return to NSW under pilot plans

International students will return to Australia, but some will be excluded by vaccine requirements.

International students will soon be able to return to Australia in a pilot plan announced by the NSW Government.

Under the federally approved plan, small groups of 250 students studying at education institutions across NSW will be allowed to return every fortnight starting early December. This number will form a separate quota in addition to existing overseas arrival caps reserved for returning Australians. 

Since the imposition of COVID-19 travel restrictions in March last year, many international students have been forced to study offshore. As of 13 September more than 57,000 enrolled offshore students remain who cannot travel to NSW to study. 

However, only students fully vaccinated with one of four COVID-19 vaccines approved by the Therapeutic Good Administration (TGA) — Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, or Moderna — will be able to participate in the program. Eligible students will be sent an invitation by their education provider. 

This means that returnees will be concentrated in countries that feature one of the four vaccines as part of their rollout and exclude key markets such as China, which uses vaccines such as Sinovac and Sinopharm in its immunisation campaign. 

Upon arrival, students will be quarantined in repurposed student accommodation buildings in Sydney. One of the selected quarantine facilities is The Block, a 24-storey development with 600 rooms by Scape Australia in Redfern.

This sets NSW’s plans against other states such as South Australia, where dedicated quarantine hubs have been constructed specifically for returning international students. 

It is expected that education providers will cover all transport and quarantine costs, however students will have to pay for flight expenses.

The pilot scheme is phased and anticipated to expand, subject to evolving advice from NSW Health, to enable an increased number of students to fly back to Australia. 

Despite the pandemic, revenue from international education stands at $26.7 billion as of August 2021 — a significant decline when compared to the $40 billion universities made in 2019. This follows worries over universities overly relying on the sector, with major institutions like USyd having generated at least a fifth of its income through international fees. 

Peak representative organisations have endorsed the plan. In a press release by Universities Austra, Catriona Jackson, Chief Executive of Universities Australia, said: “International students make a significant cultural and economic contribution to Australian life, and we look forward to a time when we can safely welcome all students back.”

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