Australia: sector calls for international student vaccination passports

Since Australia closed its border in 2020 due to the pandemic, international students have been unable to travel to the country. The federal education minister Alan Tudge recently said that the country won’t see a return of international students en masse until 2022.

“All of us hope that the issues with the vaccination program won’t delay the return of overseas students”

Now, delays to Australia’s vaccination rollout have caused concern that international students will be further hindered from entering the country. Stakeholders are warning that international students have lost patience and will be trying to change their study destination.

“There was a change in focus when the new education minister Alan Tudge came into the portfolio – the talk shifted from quarantine pathways to opening to students once vaccinations were rolled out across Australia (now delayed…) and checking if students had the ‘correct’ vaccines offshore before coming,” Robert Parsonson, executive officer of ISEAA, told The PIE News.

“Now that Australia has bungled the vaccine rollout pressure is mounting to find solutions to start bringing back students – the states New South Wales, SA and now Victoria have increased efforts to make this happen,” he said.

CEO of IEAA Phil Honeywood told The PIE that given the delays in Australia’s vaccination rollout, the sector is lobbying the federal government to establish a ‘vaccination passport’ arrangement.

“This would permit international students to enter Australia if they can provide proof of having been vaccinated prior to boarding their flight.

“Obviously, the government is concerned to ensure that the vaccine type meets their health approval protocols and that there is some independent verification of the student having actually been vaccinated,” Honeywood added.

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He explained that it is anticipated that an already vaccinated student would still be required to undertake 14 days quarantine on arrival in Australia.

“Any further delay to reopening Australia’s borders past 2021 will have consequences that will stretch well into the future”

“All of us hope that the issues with the vaccination program won’t delay the return of overseas students, but unfortunately there may be long-term implications for universities, students and the Australian economy,” Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson told The PIE.

“Any further delay to reopening Australia’s borders past 2021 will have consequences that will stretch well into the future, with losses for universities and other providers – as well as national prosperity – over multiple years.”

“We look forward to the safe return of our international students who bring great cultural and economic wealth with them, contributing $40 billion to gross domestic product and supporting 250,000 jobs.”

Jackson called for a national plan to pull together the safe return efforts of universities, state and territory governments with the Commonwealth.

There is mounting concern about how border closures are affecting Australian institutions that rely on international students.

Honeywood explained the impact of students not being able to return to Australia was nuanced and that universities and other education providers have been affected in different ways.

“On the one hand, our top ranked public universities have been pleased to see a strong appetite from students in some countries to continue their studies offshore online.”

“There is a lot of anger especially from sub-continent students“There is a lot of anger especially from sub-continent students”

However, Honeywood added that a number of other universities have discovered that some of their international students, who are already onshore in Australia, are transferring their enrolments into less expensive courses at private education providers.

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“Obviously, if we have the commencement of a third academic year in 2022 with our borders still closed then many students who have been studying offshore online might become more inclined to transfer their studies to countries that are willing to provide them with face to face teaching options,” he said.

Parsonson told The PIE that universities and TAFE are publicly funded, and so while they will cut back further jobs and capital works, they are unlikely to go out of business.

He argued that private VET and English colleges are likely to be the collateral damage of the continued border closures. He also noted that tourism and many other businesses that rely on international students are closing and that students themselves are increasingly frustrated.

“There is a lot of anger especially from sub-continent students – Australia has granted visas since July last year and is not fulfilling any obligations to even try to get some students back or into Australia. Patience has run out and it is likely that students will change the destination if possible,” he said.

“The government reviews approved plans to ensure that the Protocols and Preconditions have been met”

A Department of Education, Skills and Employment spokesperson told The PIE that international students are an important part of the Australian community, and will be welcomed back to Australia, when conditions allow.

The spokesperson said that to guide the state and territory planning process, the Australian government has developed the Protocols and Preconditions for International Student Arrivals. These protocols are available on the DESE website.

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In November 2020, all states and territories were invited to submit Student Arrivals Plans for the broader return of international students. All jurisdictions are working on student arrival plans, but no final plans have been shared with the Commonwealth.

“Any plans for international student arrivals must be approved by the state or territory’s first minister and chief health officer, who are best placed to understand the capacity of their health and quarantine systems to meet necessary standards,” the spokesperson said.

“The government reviews approved plans to ensure that the Protocols and Preconditions have been met and to ensure relevant Commonwealth agencies can support states and territories to implement their plans.”

They added that any future moves to bring international students into Australia must be done safely and without impacting Australians who want to return home.

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