SYDNEY - Australia is desperately exploring ways to reboot its international education sector, including allowing vaccinated students from Singapore to re-enter or creating special student-only flights and quarantine facilities.
Australia's international student sector was worth about A$40 billion (S$41.5 billion) in 2019, making it the country's fourth-biggest export. But the Covid-19 pandemic has caused incoming student numbers to plunge.
New official data showed that there are currently 374,000 foreign nationals holding student visas in Australia - excluding their dependants - compared with 580,000 before the pandemic.
As at March last year, China accounted for about 38 per cent of students at universities, schools and vocational colleges. Other major source countries included Vietnam and Brazil, which each accounted for 13 per cent of student visas, as well as Indonesia, South Korea and Colombia, which each accounted for 10 per cent.
In 2020, there were 7,420 Singaporeans enrolled in Australian education institutions, down from 8,325 in 2019.
The sudden drop in international enrolments has taken a heavy toll on Australian universities, which are heavily reliant on foreign student fees. Universities Australia, the peak body for Australian universities, has estimated that more than 17,300 jobs were lost at the institutions last year.
But the universities, along with Federal and State Governments, are urgently looking for ways to allow international students to return, particularly after Australia finally began its vaccination roll-out.
It is due to begin the second phase of the roll-out on Monday (March 22), which will involve immunising people aged 70 and over, as well as a wider group of health workers. As at last Thursday, almost 250,000 Australians - or 1 per cent of the population - had been vaccinated.
Australia has flagged Singapore and New Zealand as the first potential partners for travel bubbles which will involve two-way, quarantine-free travel, possibly by mid-year. Tourism Minister Dan Tehan plans to travel to Singapore within the next two months to discuss the creation of a vaccine certificate system that would enable travel.
Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said it was discussing "resumption of travel with priority for students and business travellers" with Australia, but noted it was not discussing "the concept of a quarantine centre or vaccination hub".
The proposal for Singapore-Australia travel has prompted excitement among Australian universities, which view it as a first step towards allowing students from across Asia to return.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the country's vaccination roll-out was enabling the authorities to prepare to open borders and to allow entry to students.
"The Government is... preparing for the opening of our international borders," he told SBS News last week. "So we can have those important visits from tourists... (and) also the international student sector, one of our largest export sectors. They value-add so inherently to the Australian economy - we want to get them back."
The universities sector has also proposed the creation of a specific travel and quarantine scheme for foreign students. The plan would involve students potentially entering on charter flights and quarantining at student accommodation facilities. But repeated clusters of Covid-19 cases that have emerged from quarantine facilities have dampened enthusiasm among health authorities for such a plan.
The Federal Government said such a proposal must be approved by states, which have tended to support strict Covid-19 measures.
Australia has limited the number of people entering the country, leaving thousands of Australians still trying to return from abroad.
But the state of New South Wales (NSW) has proposed that some international students should be given priority to enter the country ahead of Australians.
"This isn't about putting international students before returning Australians... It is about finding a way to look after both," wrote the state's Treasurer Dominic Perrottet in The Sydney Morning Herald.
"The students and education sector are affected by the closures of course, but so too are tens of thousands of people in NSW whose livelihoods before the pandemic depended on international education."