Authorities in the country’s most-populous state say the initiative will support local economic recovery and benefit tens of thousands of NSW residents who rely on the international education sector – worth $14.6 billion in 2019 – for work.

The program will see students adhere to quarantine requirements in purpose-built student accommodation and NSW treasurer Dominic Perrottet has emphasised that it will not “come at the expense of returning Aussies”, and will come “at no cost to taxpayers”.

“[The state] will continue to bring back 3,000 people per week – well more than any other state,” he said.

The federal government in Australia has consistently insisted that priority for return to the country will be given to Australian citizens stranded overseas.

“International education is our second most valuable export and we need to do what we can to help students return and revive this sector as quickly as possible,” Perrottet said.

“If we don’t act fast, students will turn to other overseas destinations”

“Typically, we have more than 250,000 international students studying in NSW each year and they directly supported over 95,000 local jobs prior to the pandemic. If we don’t act fast, students will turn to other overseas destinations and it could take the sector decades to recover.”

Supported by NSW Health and NSW Police, the “gradual approach… will enable us to closely manage the process and ensure community health is not compromised”, he added.

It is hoped the initiative will be a step towards opening up the country to students stranded overseas. However, some students have been frustrated by the mixed messages coming from federal and regional governments in Australia, voicing concerns using the #LetUsBackToAus hashtag on social media.

“This program has carefully considered the personal, social and academic aspects of our students, to ensure they successfully resume their studies and re-join NSW’s vibrant, multicultural community as soon as possible,” said Barney Glover AO, on behalf of the NSW vice-chancellors’ committee.

“We are excited to finally welcome back international students to experience the world-class education, training and research that makes NSW such an attractive destination for education.”

In the past two weeks, South Australia also approved a plan to allow around 160 international students return to the state fortnightly. It is also awaiting final approval from the federal government.

“Universities around the country have been making careful plans, in collaboration with health authorities, government and industry, for the safe return of students from low-risk nations,” Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson highlighted.

“It is pleasing to see progress in NSW, where international students play a large role in cultural and economic life.

“There are now more than 50,000 higher education students studying with NSW institutions who are out of the country, and it would be wonderful to see some of them safely on our shores.

“Universities Australia has been calling for a national plan for the safe return of students from low-risk nations for some time, as part of a careful reboot of Australia’s economy.”

“We are encouraged by the progress of this scalable Safe Pathway Pilot Plan in NSW,” said Council of International Students Australia president Belle Lim.

“We have been waiting for a long time, but we look forward to welcoming our friends and peers back”

“International students stranded outside Australia have suffered tremendously over the past 15 months,” she reminded. A recent CISA survey found that 93% of international students stranded overseas have experienced significant mental health issues.

“We have been waiting for a long time, but we look forward to welcoming our friends and peers back,” she said, adding the plan “sends a great message to international students studying online offshore that there is hope that things will return to normal again”.

“It is expected to be slow at the start, but we hope this proof of concept can be scaled up to bigger number and more plans from other states soon.”

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