Chief Minister Andrew Barr has floated the idea of the ACT receiving one flight of international students for every repatriation flight to help boost the Territory’s education sector.
The rollout of the vaccine – which began in the ACT yesterday (22 February) – strengthened the argument to commence a pilot program of returning international students, Mr Barr said.
“We have been working with the universities and the airlines so that as soon we get the green light from the Commonwealth to issue the visas [we are] able to go pretty quickly on bringing students back,” he told Committee Hearings on Monday.
Mr Barr said he would also recommend to the Prime Minister and his National Cabinet colleagues that returning students be vaccinated before coming to Australia.
“That would be an Australian Government decision because they control the international borders; I think it would be advisable,” he said.
“There are potential circumstances where the vaccination may not be available in the country of origin of the student, but you’d then seek to make arrangements in Australia for that to occur, but they are decisions the Commonwealth would make.”
Speaking at a media event for the ACT’s first vaccine recipient, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt did not directly say whether vaccines would be required but said that the current quarantine arrangements would remain in place regardless of the person’s vaccination status.
“All the medical advice that we have is that the quarantine system will remain in place for the time being, subject to consistent review, irrespective of whether or not vaccinations have occurred,” he said.
“At this stage, we are vaccinating in Australia, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is considering the question of those Australians who are serving overseas and, of course, what we are looking at is bringing Australians home.”
Mr Barr originally wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison with the proposal in December, but no final agreement has been reached.
“I propose to pilot the return of international students by alternating incoming flights of vulnerable Australians with flights of international students,” the Chief Minister wrote.
“The ACT Government has agreed on funding arrangements with the universities for the pilot period.
“Returning international students are important to underpin our economic recovery. I trust this proposal demonstrates our commitment to assist in returning vulnerable Australians, while balancing the need to support economic recovery in the ACT.”
Each student provides $50,000 to the local economy while education became the ACT’s first billion-dollar export industry, Mr Barr said.
The ACT Government would pay for the security and COVID-related health checks while the university and the students would pay for accommodation and mental health and wellbeing services.
The original plan would have entailed the first flight of international students landing in January and universities would begin accepting international students from mid-February.
Flights would then have continued to alternate until Easter and beyond if possible, Mr Barr proposed.