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Full reopening of Australia’s borders unlikely until mid-2022

Budget papers cast doubt on return of international students

The recovery of Australia’s international student industry has been cast into further doubt, with the federal budget on 11 May revealing that the nation’s borders were not forecast to fully reopen until the second half of 2022.

Vice-chancellors’ group Universities Australia met the announcement with dismay. In a statement, chief executive Catriona Jackson said the news would provide “serious challenges” for universities. “Governments across all jurisdictions need to come together with universities to develop a robust plan for the safe return of international students. The plan would mean the careful quarantine of students from low-risk countries,” she said.

“The sector took a $1.8 billion revenue hit last year. Universities Australia conservatively estimates at least another $2bn will be lost this year—against 2019 actual operating revenue,” Jackson said. “The picture for universities will get worse. There will be significant flow-on effects for the nation’s research capacity and jobs inside and outside universities.

“Australia’s university sector cannot sustain these losses without serious damage to national productivity and the country’s knowledge base.”

A report published on 5 May on the international education website International Consultants for Education and Fairs said that overseas enrolment agents were reporting a drop in business of up to 60 per cent.

Pilot schemes

Only one pilot scheme to bring in international students—in Darwin in late 2020—has been approved so far. Education minister Alan Tudge recently told Australia’s Today show that any places for students had to be in addition to those allocated to returning citizens, who remained the priority. He said he was reviewing the most recent plan put forward by the Victorian government.

The budget papers suggest that pilot schemes may begin operating in late 2021.

The return of students from China is still in doubt, with the Australian federal government requiring 13 Australian universities to submit the details of their Confucius Institute deals with China for consideration under new foreign interference powers.