In a speech at RMIT in Melbourne on Wednesday Alan Tudge said he is asked “almost daily” for a date and a roadmap for the return of international students.

“We are looking forward to welcoming back international students who remain overseas, and we thank them for their patience to date. I hope they appreciate that we have closed the borders for a  very good reason,” he said.

“The unpredictability of this virus just does not allow me – or anyone else for that matter – to make guarantees”

“Since the beginning of the pandemic we have followed the health advice from Australian medical experts, and while I would like to provide certainty and predict a time at which we can welcome back international students in large numbers, I hope you all recognise that the unpredictability of this virus just does not allow me – or anyone else for that matter – to make guarantees.”

The vaccine rollout in Australia, which is currently behind schedule, will play a big part in the timing of the reopening of borders, he said.

“With the vaccine rollout underway, I am increasingly hopeful that student arrivals in larger numbers will occur by Semester 1 of next year.

“The research is clear that Covid-19 vaccines will protect lives and livelihoods. There are challenges though.

“While successful at controlling symptoms, we do not yet know if the vaccine prevents transmission, and a global authentication system for vaccination certificates is a long way off. We are expecting more clarity on these issues by mid-year at which time we should be more certain on border openings.”

Tudge said there remains the possibility of bringing in smaller numbers of students via individual pilot programs however he is yet to see any proposals.

“This could occur if an institution works with the state or territory government and presents a plan to  us for quarantining international students.

“The plan must be approved by the chief health officer of the state or territory and there must be quarantine space available above and beyond that presently used for returning Australians. I have discussed various plans with government and university leaders but to date have not received any concrete proposal.”

The New South Wales and South Australian governments have both indicated they have advanced proposals to bring back students to their respective states, while the Victorian government will reportedly ask national cabinet at its next meeting on April 9 to allow international students, film crews and other essential workers to be allowed into the country from April 15, as part of a small proportion of the international arrivals to be known as “economic cohorts”.

In a statement, chief executive of Universities Australia Catriona Jackson said that the organisation looks “forward to the time when we can safely welcome students back to our shores”.

“Covid-19 has presented significant challenges, and we are pleased to work with government on the best ways to rise to those challenges.”

“Universities have been working closely with state and territory governments over many months to plan for the safe return of international students – work which the Minister acknowledged in his remarks. We would welcome a national plan – drawing together efforts from all levels of government, and the sector – on this important matter,” she said.

“Long term vision is important, and we look forward to discussing the 10-year international education strategy”, which Tudge also announced at the event.

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