SYDNEY - Universities in Australia have proposed creating "safe corridors" to allow foreign students to return as the nation tries to urgently rescue its lucrative international education sector.
International students bring about A$39 billion (S$36.7 billion) a year into Australia and account for about 26 per cent of total university revenue. The sudden loss of many students from abroad amid the ban on arrivals of foreign nationals due to the pandemic has already led to staff cuts at universities and could leave some facing financial collapse if it continues into next year.
The Group of Eight, which represents eight leading Australian universities, has reportedly presented a plan to state and federal governments to introduce "safe corridors" for international students to try to stem these losses.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the plan would allow students to enter from countries where Covid-19 outbreaks are under control. They would reportedly be required to isolate and undergo health checks in their home countries before travelling on flights - arranged with specific airlines - to Australia, where they would be transferred by the universities to quarantine accommodation.
They would then self-isolate under supervision.
The federal government has signalled that it will consider exempting international students from the travel bans from July. This would enable them to start second-semester studies.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the government was open to allowing universities to consider finding safe ways to bring in international students.
"We have indicated we are welcoming of proposals for universities... to look at a means of bringing back - through supervised, stringent quarantine - international students," he added.
"With regards to universities, it's up to them to put forward proposals."
The government of New South Wales, Australia's largest state, has expressed support for allowing international students to enter, subject to the mandatory 14-day quarantine that applies to all arrivals. More than 15,000 Australians have entered the state from overseas and been quarantined since the travel ban was imposed.
Australia has avoided a serious Covid-19 outbreak. There were 17 new cases on Friday (May 29), down from a peak of 460 new infections in late March.
The most recent cases have had known sources and include people who are in quarantine after returning from overseas. In total, Australia has had 7,173 cases and 103 deaths.
But the travel curbs have meant that about 120,000 international students - or 20 per cent of the total expected cohort - have been unable to travel to Australia for their studies. A further 80,000 were due to come to Australia to start their second semester studies from July.
Last year, 758,154 international students took up places in Australia, including 442,219 in universities and 283,893 in vocational colleges. Chinese students made up 28 per cent of last year's total cohort, followed by those from India (17 per cent), Nepal (8 per cent), Vietnam (4 per cent) and Brazil (3 per cent). Most of the 8,318 Singaporeans who studied in Australia - 7,115 - were at universities.
Universities Australia, a peak university body, has estimated that the loss of international students due to Covid-19 has put 21,000 jobs at risk. It says universities are facing losses of $3 billion to $4.6 billion in revenue.
Deakin University in Melbourne this week proposed cutting 300 staff as it faces losses of A$250 million to A$300 million in revenue over the coming year. Several universities have flagged introducing wage cuts and hiring freezes.
The government will need to find a solution soon, because some foreign students are saying they may not return if they cannot resume their studies next semester.
A Chinese student who has been unable to travel from Shanghai, Ms Greta Fei, said she had conducted her studies using online learning but may not continue if she cannot return for the second semester in July.
"I don't feel engaged; I feel more comfortable studying on campus," Ms Fei told SBS News.
"I think I will defer for a semester if this travel ban continues... After I've experienced the online tutorials, I don't think it's suitable for me."