The ACT Government has given the green light to the University of Canberra (UC) and the Australian National University (ANU) to charter a flight from an Asia-Pacific country to bring currently enrolled international students back to Australia by mid-July.
UC Vice-Chancellor Professor Paddy Nixon outlined the plan to ABC Radio this morning (18 June). Under the pilot program, up to 350 international students could return to Australia.
“It is for students who were unable to make it back before the pandemic struck, so these are international students who are already signed up for the university,” he said.
Australia shut its borders due to COVID-19 in March.
“[These students] are in the later years of university and are really looking to complete their degrees, post-graduate degrees and research degrees. We have in excess of 400 [students] that were registered for the university and expecting to come back to Canberra.”
According to the ANU, around 2,800 international students – or 40 per cent of their international enrolments – remain offshore.
Under the pilot program, students will have to pay their own airfares, but the universities will be paying for hotel accommodation and meals during quarantine, ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt told Radio National.
“We are trying to make sure that it is people who would benefit the most, and the pilot [program] is meant to figure out the logistics,” he said.
“[We are] working to make sure quarantine works and that it is safe for the Australians but it is also safe for the students because putting students away for 14-days and forgetting about them is not a good thing.
“We need to absolutely ensure they are looked after and that we can advance their studies … at the same time.”
The same isolation and health protocols would apply to international students under the scheme that were in place for the Australian residents who recently arrived in the ACT from India and Nepal.
Professor Schmidt said while there is a small chance that a student would have COVID-19, there is no chance that it could spread in the community.
“We know there will be some chance of someone having an infection but the quarantine will be so strong that there will be no chance of it getting out into our community.”
Professor Nixon also rejected the premise that these flights were being organised for financial reasons. The proposal comes a week after UC reported it would lose up to $33 million in 2020, and ANU is bracing for job cuts and redundancies because of the pandemic.
“At this stage, it is not about money, and I take quite significant issue with that,” he said. “These are students that have already signed up to the university, these are not students that were looking to start at the university.
“That would be next year and that would be after a significant process. This is about following through on our commitment to these students.
“In the long term, the universities play a critical part in our economy, and certainly [international students] are a part of it and all universities will be considering how to operate into the future but international students have to be apart of that because we are an internationally engaged country.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison previously said the ACT was well placed to undertake the pilot program, ruling out any state or territory that had closed its borders to other Australians.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the Prime Minister had called the ACT’s plan an “excellent proposal”.
“We have done a lot of work with the universities over the last six weeks or so to have a really well-developed proposal that has been before the Commonwealth,” Mr Barr said last week.
“I am confident that given we have not closed our borders to other Australians that we are the best-placed jurisdiction to manage that first international student pilot back into Australia.”
Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham told the National Press Club yesterday (17 June) that Australia’s borders were likely to remain closed until at least 2021.