Fully vaccinated international students from around the world will be allowed into Australia from 1 December 2021, without needing to apply for a travel exemption. Prime Minister Scott Morrison made the announcement on 23 November.
Although university bodies such as Universities Australia and the Group of Eight welcomed the announcement, sources in the higher education sector have said they were blindsided by it and are now scrambling to update their plans.
States in confusion
Prior to the prime minister’s announcement, only small numbers of students had been able to apply for a travel exemption to enter the country. They included research students with Australian government funding, medical, dental, nursing or allied health students who would undertake work placements, and secondary school students in years 11 and 12.
On October 15, New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet announced quarantine restrictions would be scrapped from November 1 for all fully vaccinated international arrivals to the state. But the prime minister slammed the brakes on the NSW plan to open up to the world, saying:
The federal government is not opening it up to anyone other than Australian residents and citizens and their immediate families.
Such confusion put states in a difficult position. Before Morrison’s announcement yesterday, NSW and Victoria – the states hosting the most international students – both developed pilot programs to return international students. The NSW plan was to allow up to 250 international students studying with state education providers to return each fortnight from early December 2021. That figure would increase to 500 students per fortnight by the end of the year.
Victoria’s proposal would at first allow 120 currently enrolled students nominated by universities to enter the state each week. Numbers would be expanded to more students and other providers over time.
Universities in both states had been working frantically to organise details such as prioritising students selected for the programs and chartered flights. The Commonwealth’s dropping of restrictions on international travel now seems to have superseded these pilot plans.
This will probably mean the caps of 250 per fortnight in NSW and 120 per week for Victoria will no longer be in place.
The only aspects of the pilot programs in NSW and Victoria likely to remain could be the already organised chartered flights. These will slightly ease the burden on commercial airlines, which may need more time to ensure capacity.
The University of Sydney has updated its information, saying:
The […] pilot program will continue as planned, with the University providing a supported return program for current students who are eligible and choose to participate. The first charter flight of international students is due to arrive on 6 December 2021. Eligible students will be contacted directly as more flights are announced.
However, most of the states’ universities have not yet updated their plans.
Different rules for different states
Both NSW and Victoria had already scrapped their quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated arrivals. But international students entering other states may still face a range of restrictions. In the case of Queensland this includes having to pay for a mandatory two-week stay in an isolated quarantine facility.
Entering Western Australia may be impossible altogether, given the state’s plan to ease border controls only once a 90% two-dose vaccination target is achieved.
It’s also important to note international student pilot programs were restricted to universities, where only around half of all international students`are enrolled. The latest announcement now means students in other kinds of international education, such as the vocational education and training sector and English language courses, can start arriving.
It’s unclear, however, what the announcement means for international school students, as those under 18 are less likely to be vaccinated.
Under the new arrangements to begin from December 1, travellers must:
- depart from their home country
- be fully vaccinated with a completed dosage of a vaccine approved or recognised by the TGA
- hold a valid Australian visa
- provide proof of their vaccination status
- present a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within three days of departure.
Eligible visa holders include skilled and student cohorts, as well as humanitarian, working holidaymaker and provisional family visa holders.
School students are more likely to be interested in coming early in the next year anyway. But international tertiary students could be interested in arriving soon to work here over the summer, given Australia’s skill shortages in industries that commonly employ them – such as hospitality.
The big question now is how long it will take airlines to ramp up to full capacity. In pre-COVID times, this would have been a walk in the park. There were 21.3 million international arrivals in Australia in 2019, or around 1.8 million inbound passengers per month.
In October, the International Air Transport Association estimated international air travel is at only 40% of pre-COVID levels in 2021. It may take a long time to reach pre-COVID levels again, but at least we’re on our way.