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Singaporeans worry about being unable to return to Australian unis

Veterinary student Samuel Cheong is worried he might not be able to return to the University of Queensland in Brisbane when his term starts next month.

The 24-year-old is concerned borders there may be closed again, except for citizens and permanent residents, amid a surge in Omicron cases which saw daily infections in the state of Queensland hit more than 23,000 cases yesterday.

For almost two years, Australia imposed one of the toughest border measures to keep the Covid-19 pandemic at bay. It barred foreigners from the country and limited the number of Australian residents who could return.

Foreign students such as Mr Cheong, a Singaporean, could leave Australia, but were then locked out of the country.

"There was a constant struggle with wanting to pack up everything and just head home instead of staying there (in Brisbane)," said Mr Cheong, who finally decided to return to Singapore in December 2020.

He then took a gap year last year as his course did not allow him to attend classes online.

The rules changed from Nov 1 last year, when Australian citizens and permanent residents were allowed to leave the country without permission.

On Dec 1, measures were relaxed to allow international travellers with valid visas, including students, entry into the country.

Singaporeans can travel without the need for medical exemptions, but need to be fully vaccinated.

Mr Cheong bought a ticket for Feb 6 to return to Brisbane, where he is hoping to resume his studies and complete the six semesters left in his course.

Covid-19's impact on Australia's education sector has been significant. The Mitchell Institute, an Australian education policy think-tank, noted that applications in 2020 for international student visas were about 80 per cent to 90 per cent below what they were in 2019.

Applications from students in Singapore fell from 1,315 in 2019 to 530 in 2020, a 59 per cent decrease.

Mr Ruel Tan, a 24-year-old aspiring musician, had planned to leave for Sydney in June 2020 for his first semester studying worship music at Hillsong College in Sydney.

He never got there, despite having a valid student visa from January 2020. Mr Tan ended up attending classes and individual coaching lessons through video conferencing platforms in Singapore for three semesters.

"It was a bit of a missed oppor-tunity… nothing beats being there in person, experiencing the music and having opportunities to play on a stage to an audience," he said.

But he is now concerned about the surge in infections, which saw New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, where Sydney is located, surpass half a million cases.

"The situation in Australia is still quite worrying… and I am afraid there would be a sudden lockdown in Australia while I am there that would still restrict me from being physically on campus," said Mr Tan, who eventually decided to delay his studies for a semester and remain in Singapore until July this year.

Ms Caitlyn Tan, 23, was among students who did not apply for an international student visa despite enrolling in Australian universities.

She completed her 18-month-long Bachelor of Communication programme in Singapore in December last year. She was enrolled as a Queensland University of Technology student.

"I felt like I wasn't getting my money's worth as I was unable to utilise the physical resources on campus," said Ms Tan, who paid around $30,000 per semester after subsidies from a scholarship.

Mr Tan, who received his booster shot in December last year, is hoping to visit his campus for the first time in Sydney in July.

"I hope things will have settled down by then and I can gain practical experience on campus for my final year," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2022, with the headline Singaporeans worry about being unable to return to Australian unis. Subscribe