Hopes up for Singaporeans eager to return to Aussie unis

Students hopeful that rest of Australia will open doors soon once South Australia's pilot succeeds

International students at the University of Sydney earlier this month. Many international students left Australia as the pandemic spread globally, and returning has proved difficult with countries keeping their borders shut.
International students at the University of Sydney earlier this month. Many international students left Australia as the pandemic spread globally, and returning has proved difficult with countries keeping their borders shut. PHOTO: REUTERS

With news that the state of South Australia will soon open its borders to international students, Singaporean students are hoping that the rest of Australia will soon follow suit and allow those pursuing higher education in the country to return.

Last week, Australia's Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham said South Australia will allow 300 international students - mainly from China, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore - to return to the state in a pilot to restart the ailing education sector.

The sector accounts for more than $20 billion in revenue and was the third most valuable export after coal and iron ore before the pandemic.

The minister said the pilot will allow the authorities in Australia to test if it can be applied across the country. From next month, higher education students can fly from Singapore to Adelaide, a city which has effectively curbed the spread of the coronavirus.

There is no indication from Australia if these students will need Covid-19 testing or a period of quarantine in Singapore before they leave for Adelaide.

But once they arrive in the city, they will be quarantined for 14 days in hotels, which will be paid for by the universities.

The University of Adelaide's dentistry programme is among several in the country that Singaporeans enrol in.

It is unclear how many Singaporeans are currently enrolled in Australian universities but the last report in 2016 showed there were about 8,000.

Many international students left Australia as the pandemic spread globally. Going back to their schools has proved difficult with countries keeping their borders shut, with few exceptions.

Ms Hazel Tan, who is doing a master's in biomedical science at the University of Western Australia, chose to remain in Perth as she was not sure when she would be allowed back.

Lessons were moved online in March before some face-to-face sessions were introduced from last month, with safe distancing measures in place. The 22-year-old said she has at least five friends who decided to return to Singapore but have not been allowed to get back to Australia.

"Western Australia made it very clear they wouldn't reopen their borders, so you can leave, but it's not guaranteed that you can come back even if you have a student visa.

"The university promised that it will deliver lessons online for students who can't be here, but I can see that the quality is very different compared with physical lessons."

Ms Celine Choo, 19, an engineering student at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, is in Singapore. She thinks the earliest she will be allowed back would be next year.

"Even if we were allowed to return, the university would need to stagger it such that not everyone comes back at once and overloads the system," said Ms Choo, who returned in March and has been attending classes online since.

If students are allowed to return, she said, those in postgraduate programmes would be given priority, according to an e-mail she received from her university.

She said she has been monitoring the Covid-19 situation in Australia and the risk level -outside of the state of Victoria, which has seen a surge in cases - seems to be similar to Singapore's.

"If I could go back, I definitely would... It's just that it doesn't seem it will be an option any time soon."

Meanwhile, there are efforts to allow foreign students back into Singapore as well, The Sunday Times understands.

The move is being made alongside broader measures to establish green lanes with countries for business, diplomatic and other essential travel.

Singapore and Malaysia have resumed essential business and official travel.

From Sept 1, the Republic will also allow general travel to Brunei and New Zealand, as well as for students returning overseas for their studies.

Education Minister Lawrence Wong said on Friday that students studying overseas at institutions where distance learning is not offered as an option by the school will be allowed to travel.

"Many foreign education institutions are resuming their terms quite soon... There are students based in Singapore who are full-time students and who have to go back to school in these various institutions," Mr Wong said.

Singaporean students enrolled in universities outside Australia are weighing the trade-offs between safety, financial costs and disruption to their education before deciding on their next step.

Ms Grace Chew, 20, who will be starting her final year at University College London next month, said she has still not decided if she will return to London or continue with remote learning.

But she does hope to eventually resume physical lessons.

"Public health and safety are most important. Without that, I would not be able to study at ease.

"I believe the university is doing the best it can in enforcing strict safe distancing measures, so I am very thankful.

"There are of course disruptions to our education but it is what it is," said the law student.

She is hoping pilots similar to South Australia's will be initiated in London to ease international students' return.

She said: "Living in London is expensive, so (having quarantine costs covered) would really be of great help."

There are currently an estimated 19,000 Singapore students enrolled in universities in the United States, Britain and Australia.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2020, with the headline Hopes up for Singaporeans eager to return to Aussie unis. Subscribe