The shock announcement came after an emergency National Cabinet Meeting with federal and state leaders was called to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, and signals a change in direction for several states which had previously vowed to make international student returns a priority.

“If you’re paying significant tuition fees, you want that face to face to lecture and tutorial development”

Effective immediately New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia is halving the number of international arrivals in those states to a combined 2,500 per week.

South Australia will take 600 a week and Victoria 1,120. Priority will continue to be given to returning Australian residents, with an estimated 36,000 residents on the waiting list.

Late last year the New South Wales government announced plans to start returning 1,000 students each week to Sydney, however premier Gladys Berejiklian has now put that on hold following a number of Covid outbreaks in the state.

Victoria, which usually welcomes around 100,000 international students each year, has also failed to finalise a plan for bringing back students in Semester One instead complying with the national strategy to focus on returning residents.

A pilot flight to return 300 students to South Australia has been delayed after a combination of local outbreaks and public and political pressure.

Only one pilot to return students was completed before Christmas with Charles Darwin University successfully bringing back a small group of 63 students at the end of November, using privately managed quarantine facilities to comply with federal and state health requirements.

The country’s peak body for international education, IEAA, fears this latest news will cause significant and lasting damage to the international education sector, which is worth around $40 billion dollars annually, and has already been crippled by the pandemic.

IEAA chief executive officer Phil Honeywood said the announcement will also severely test students’ loyalty to Australia.

“They’ve been very patient and in some ways treating it like a gap year and others have persisted with been taught offshore, online, but at the end of the day, if you’re paying significant tuition fees, you want that face to face to lecture and tutorial development, which is very difficult to get in the same manner in an online world.”

He said what adds insult to injury is that the federal government is making exceptions to travel restrictions for other sectors, such as sport.

“We’ve got 1,200 tennis players and their entourages who are being allowed into Victoria to play in the Australian Open. They also get special consideration [from hotel quarantine] for five hours a day outside of the hotel.

“Then there’s hundreds of foreign military personnel from different countries in Asia coming here to undertake training with the Australian Defence College in other states, and concession given to bring in fruit pickers from the Pacific Islands.”

Honeywood said it sends a strong message to those full fee paying international students, particularly those who have invested years in studying in Australia and now are locked out with no other way of achieving their qualifications.

“Just this week I had the parent of a Canadian student contact me upset because her son is literally in that situation – four years into a five year dental degree at University of Melbourne and can’t get back, and the only way they can get this is to [complete] the field work here in Australia to be ticked off as fully qualified.”

Honeywood has described the situation as unconscionable and said IEAA will continue lobbying the federal government, penning a letter to the prime minister, Scott Morrison.

“We will bring together all peak bodies to co-sign, calling for special consideration for some of these students who are two thirds way through a degree program because they fully deserve support.

“We’ll be calling for an indicative date for when we can restart the industry”

“It’s just unconscionable that they’ve invested so many years and so much of their family’s income into a world class qualification. And we’ll also be seeking clarity for the tens of thousands of other students in limbo.

“We’ll be calling for an indicative date for when we can restart the industry.”

His prediction, however, is that that won’t be until mid 2021, in line with Australia’s Covid-19 vaccination program which is due to commence in late February.

“I think our social licence to operate as an industry will be subject to the majority of Australians having been immunised, so hopefully we can look to second semester for a good number of students to return.”

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