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NSW has paused plans to fly in international students to help kickstart the struggling education sector, with Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirming the pilot program won’t proceed while the state remains in lockdown.
The state government has not set a date for an end to the lockdown but a lengthy extension would push the program’s start date into the later months of the year, further delaying plans to ramp up the student intake ahead of semester one next year.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian says the pilot program will be revisited once the lockdown ends.Credit:James Brickwood
Ms Berejiklian said on Tuesday the pilot program had been put on hold, adding the government would not do anything to compromise its ability to exit the lockdown as quickly as possible.
“We will look at all those issues once we exit the lockdown. Whilst we are in lockdown, our absolute obsession is to get us out of lockdown. We all know the challenge that poses but know that by working together we will get there,” she said.
Many universities have been hard-hit by the pandemic as border closures triggered declines in high-fee-paying international students. The international student education market is worth $14 billion a year to the NSW economy, with each student spending $60,000 on average on top of their education expenses.
But Sydney’s outbreak of the highly infectious Delta strain of COVID-19 underscores the challenge faced by governments and the sector in planning the return of international students.
NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet announced just weeks ago that 250 overseas students would be brought into the state on charter flights every fortnight from as soon as this month. The plan was expected to be scaled up to 500 students a fortnight by the end of the year, with students to cover the costs of their flights while universities were to foot the quarantine bill for their stay at a special accommodation facility in inner-city Redfern.
Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge said on Tuesday the NSW government had made the right call in pausing the pilot.
“As the Premier has made clear, NSW is focused on getting out of the current lockdown and reducing case numbers. That is the right approach,” he said. “We’ll continue to work with states and territories on proposals to return international students when conditions allow. As always, we’ll be guided by the health advice and keep the safety of Australians as our number one priority.”
The federal government’s four-stage plan for reopening the country, announced earlier this month, also poses challenges for the return of students. While phase one permits pilot programs for “limited entry of student and economic visa holders”, caps on the number of students entering the country will be imposed in later phases, complicating NSW’s ability to ramp up its intake of students next year using commercial flights.
NSW Vice-Chancellors’ Committee convenor Professor Barney Glover said the pause was a “sensible response in the current circumstances” but the committee was continuing to work on logistics with the state government to ensure the pilot was ready to go once the lockdown ended.
“Allowing international students to continue their studies in Australia is vital to the state and our universities,” said Professor Glover, who is vice-chancellor of Western Sydney University.
Phil Honeywood, chief executive of International Education Association Australia, said the delay meant universities were at risk of entering a third academic year in 2022 with international students unable to enter the country in significant numbers.
“Many months and effort have gone into NSW being the second state to bring students back. We know it can be done safely, separate from the other international arrivals, but time is running out because the UK, Canada and USA now have their borders fully open for international students,” Mr Honeywood said. “This will put at risk a whole three-year pipeline of students and do our nation long-standing social and economic damage.”
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