SYDNEY - On Dec 6, international students will finally return to Sydney on a charter flight as part of a trial scheme aimed at reviving its lucrative international education sector.
The flight will carry 250 students from 15 countries, including Canada, China, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam.
The students must be fully vaccinated but will not need to quarantine. A second flight will arrive on Dec 24, carrying students from India and other parts of South Asia. After that, further flights are expected to arrive every two weeks.
Separately, small numbers of Singaporean students have begun returning to Australia as part of the new vaccinated travel lane (VTL) between Singapore and Australia.
A group of Singaporean students arrived on Sunday (Nov 21), marking the first return of international students as part of Australia's reopening of borders.
Under the VTL, Singapore citizens who are fully vaccinated will be able to travel to Australia without quarantine, but only to participating states and territories. Entrants from Singapore must have certification of their vaccination and hold a valid visa.
The trial scheme from Dec 6 will mark a much-needed turning point for Australia, which lost many international students when borders were closed because of the pandemic. Universities are increasingly concerned that a failure to quickly reboot the sector and admit students from abroad could result in some choosing to go elsewhere.
Aside from New South Wales (NSW), states such as Victoria, Queensland and South Australia are also preparing to allow students to return. Victoria's scheme is reportedly due to start in late December with about 120 students a week, beginning with those who need to do practical work, such as medical students, and postgraduate researchers.
Announcing the return of international students to NSW, state Premier Dominic Perrottet said that the coming charter flights mark a "significant milestone" in the state's recovery.
"They don't just make a significant contribution to our economy, but international students play a role in our culture and contribute to our community and lifestyle," he said in a statement.
Australia's international education sector was worth A$40 billion (S$39.4 billion) in the year to June 30, 2020, making it the country's fourth biggest export after iron ore, coal and gas. But numbers have dropped since the pandemic.
As at August, there were 552,491 international students enrolled in Australian institutions such as universities, technical colleges and schools, a drop of 17 per cent from the previous August. The largest sources of foreign students were China, which accounted for 30 per cent of students, followed by India (18 per cent), Nepal (8 per cent), Vietnam (4 per cent) and Malaysia (3 per cent).
In the past year, just over 6,000 Singaporean students enrolled in Australian institutions, a drop of about 25 per cent since 2019. Most Singaporeans - about 92 per cent - were university students.
Since the start of the pandemic, Australia's strict border closures have forced many new and returning students to study online or defer their studies. There are currently about 150,000 foreign students with visas for Australia who have been unable to enter.
Not surprisingly, universities have been pushing for schemes to allow students to return. Several proposed trials have been aborted due to sudden outbreaks of Covid-19 but Australia is starting to lift its border closures and allow quarantine-free travel as vaccination rates increase.
In NSW, 92 per cent of eligible residents were fully vaccinated as at Saturday and 94 per cent had received a first dose. Nationally, over 85 per cent of residents were fully vaccinated.
But there are growing concerns about the future of Australia's international education sector, as students have been looking to study in Britain, the United States and Canada as a result of Australia's strict lockdowns.
The timeline for a full reopening of state and international borders in Australia remains uncertain, with most states and territories still imposing quarantine until their vaccination rates increase.
Universities Australia, a grouping of universities, said last week that Australia remained attractive to international students but needed to do more to allow and encourage students to return.
"Other countries have responded very intelligently, they've loosened up some of their work rights criteria, their borders have been open," the body's chief executive Catriona Jackson told ABC News.
"If we don't keep up, if we don't get students back at scale by first semester next year, it is really hard for us to maintain our position."
A recent survey of 3,650 people from 55 countries by IDP Connect, part of Melbourne-based student recruitment firm IDP Education, found the most favoured study destination was Canada, which was top choice for 39 per cent of respondents, followed by the United States and Britain (each 17 per cent), and then Australia (16 per cent).