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Foreign student crisis spurs Australian states to reopen doors

Schools in study-abroad hub lose jobs and vital tuition revenue amid lockdown

New South Wales, home to the University of Sydney, would bring in up to 250 international students every two weeks under a recently announced pilot program. (Photo by Fumi Matsumoto)

SYDNEY -- As Australia's ongoing border clampdown keeps out the international students on which many of the country's universities rely for income, state governments have begun taking action on their own.

The sector suffered a 1.8 billion Australian dollar ($1.4 billion) hit to revenue last year and lost 17,000 jobs, according to an estimate by Universities Australia, a group of 39 institutions. The organization said last month that it "conservatively estimates at least another $2 billion will be lost this year against 2019 actual operating revenue."

Dominic Perrottet, treasurer of the state of New South Wales, announced last week a pilot program to begin bringing back international students. "If we don't act fast, students will turn to other overseas destinations and it could take the sector decades to recover," he said in a news release.

Around 250,000 students from abroad studied in New South Wales, home to such institutions as the University of Sydney, each year before the pandemic. The state's education sector supported more than 95,000 local jobs in 2019, both on and off campus.

International students play an outsize role in Australia's education sector, with tuition from this group accounting for about 30% of revenue at large universities. In 2018, 26.5% of students in tertiary education in Australia were from overseas, compared with 13.8% in Canada, 19.7% in New Zealand and 18.3% in the U.K., according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But tough entry restrictions imposed by Australia in March 2020 have largely shut out incoming students. The country still bars nearly all foreign travelers except those from New Zealand, and those who are allowed in must undergo a two-week quarantine, with few exceptions.

The limited capacity of quarantine facilities is a major barrier. The government is prioritizing returning Australian nationals -- of whom around 35,000 are still stranded overseas -- and foreign students are much further down the queue.

A charter flight with about 60 international students landed in the Northern Territory last November, the first to enter Australia since the border closures, but little progress has been made since then.

The federal government's budget proposal released in May suggested -- though it did not state outright -- that entry bans will stay in place for the time being. An insider warned that these measures are already leading students to choose other countries such as the U.K., Canada and the U.S.

Some states, running out of patience with federal authorities' slow response, are setting out plans to reopen their own doors to international students, though all of these efforts require federal approval.

The program announced by New South Wales calls for bringing in up to 250 students every two weeks, using "purpose-built student accommodation" as quarantine facilities, starting in the latter half of this year. Universities in the Australian Capital Territory, which contains Canberra, hope to participate in this plan.

South Australia looks to let students quarantine in accommodations at flight schools that operate near Parafield Airport outside Adelaide. Premier Steven Marshall has stressed the safety of the plan, noting that health and police authorities were central to drafting it.

Not all states are keen to welcome international students back right away. Tasmania has said it has no such plans, while Western Australia says it is too soon to do so, with the coronavirus still not under control in much of the world.

While the country has fared better than most in keeping the virus out, the state of Victoria imposed a lockdown in Melbourne last month in response to an outbreak that has been linked to the highly contagious Delta variant.

Meanwhile, countries where vaccination campaigns are further along have begun opening up to overseas students. The U.S. State Department said in April that it will ease travel restrictions ahead of the school year starting this fall, and Canada is allowing in students from abroad.

Whether Australia chooses to follow suit may have a significant impact on its economy beyond the education sector. A university insider in Australia's Northern Territory said that international students each contribute AU$40,000 -- or about $30,000 -- to the region's economy, and South Australia says they also contribute much to retail and tourism businesses.

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