Currently around 30% – approximately 164,000 – of Australia’s 542,106 student visa holders are stuck outside the country.

The national cabinet meeting between state and federal leaders held on February 5 was expected to discuss a range of Covid-related travel and vaccine measures, including proposed plans to bring back international students.

“We must remember that our borders are actually shut. No one can just come to Australia”

However following the meeting prime minister Scott Morrison made no mention of international students or any anticipated return dates. He did announce the country will increase its cap on international arrivals from mid-February from around 4,100 back up to 6,300 and expand the Howard Springs quarantine facility in the Northern Territory to hold more international arrivals for the mandatory 14 day quarantine period.

That facility had previously been used in the country’s only pilot program to return international students to university, run by Charles Darwin University.

However Morrison confirmed it will now be used to house Australian citizens who are being brought in on federal government repatriation flights, with those arrivals not being counted under the caps.

It was hoped there would be specific news on state and federal plans to open places up to international students, however Morrison reiterated the 40,000 Australians stranded overseas remain the top priority.

“It was agreed once again that the return of Australian residents is the priority in terms of arrivals to Australia. We must remember that our borders are actually shut. No one can just come to Australia,” he said.

“To be able to come to Australia you need to be an Australian resident or citizen or have a particular exemption in a particular occupation or something of that nature which is handled through Border Force to enable someone to come. And that is only a small proportion of the arrivals that come to Australia.”

In the lead up to the meeting key representatives for the sector, including the IEAA lobbied the federal government to provide an indicative return date for international students to Australia, while almost 17,000 students have signed a petition asking for exemptions from the travel ban, calling it a human rights issue.

IEAA’s Phil Honeywood said the outcome of the meeting was disappointing to say the least, and it’s now time to change focus.

“In the absence of any national leadership for the return of international students we are now focused on individual premiers support in returning students to particular states,” he said.

Respective states are technically responsible for developing plans to bring students back, however final approval lies with the federal government.

NSW, which hosts the largest number of international students, discussed a plan late last year to use one third of its hotel quarantine spots however last month premier Gladys Berejiklian shelved that proposal following local outbreaks of Covid-19.

Victorian students saw a glimmer of hope in January with reports premier Daniel Andrews was preparing a detailed plan to pitch to the federal government however just a week later Andrews conceded there was little prospect of bringing back any significant number of students this year.

“We keep on being told by federal government ministers that we have to get the support of the individual states”

South Australia and ACT continue to work on plans to fly back overseas students however the federal government is yet to sign off, and the NT which is the only state to have brought back international students says it is still waiting for government approval for its plans for further flights.

“The prime minister keeps saying that he doesn’t control quarantine,” said Honeywood.

“We keep on being told by federal government ministers that we have to get the support of the individual states premiers and state chief medical officers.

“Well, OK, that’s what we’ve been told to do then if we achieve that, as with the Northern Territory, then prime minister will say ‘it’s got nothing to do with you’. [Turns out…] the federal government is all powerful after all.

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