S'pore students welcome travel bubble allowing them to enter or return from Australia

(From left) University of Adelaide student Sarah Kwok, University of Tasmania student Nitesh Pillay Ravichandar and University of Melbourne student Aloysius Low. PHOTOS: SARAH KWOK, NITESH PILLAY RAVICHANDAR, ALOYSIUS LOW

SINGAPORE - Since Covid-19 travel restrictions stopped medical student Sarah Kwok from returning to classes in Australia last year, she has made up for the difficulties of learning clinical skills remotely by practising on her family in Singapore.

Still, the second-year student at the University of Adelaide has struggled to replicate exactly what her tutors demonstrate via videoconferencing platform Zoom for the past 19 months.

The 21-year-old said: "I would practise on my family members at home in my own time, but there was no supervision, and I didn't know if what I was doing was correct."

She was among six students who told The Straits Times that they welcomed the much-delayed travel bubble plans confirmed by Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday (Oct 22).

The arrangement could be in place by Nov 23 and would allow fully vaccinated international students to enter Australia.

Said Ms Kwok: "With this travel bubble, I will be able to go back and catch up on the things I have missed."

She is due to return to school under Australia's international student arrival plan, which will allow her to fly back at the end of this year or early next year.

Since the start of the pandemic, Australia has had one of the world's strictest travel restrictions, with non-Australian residents banned from entering the country.

These curbs have contributed to the loss of about 100,000 international students and cost the economy around $10 billion.

The number of student visa applications from Singaporeans to Australia has also fallen by 59 per cent, from 1,315 in 2019 to 530 last year.

Earlier this year, a Singaporean undergraduate at Monash University petitioned the Australian Parliament to permit Singaporean students to enter the country to resume campus learning.

The online petition received 1,090 signatures and was presented in Australia's Parliament.

Meanwhile, those who continued their studies in Australia are looking forward to spending holidays with their families in Singapore without the fear of borders closing unexpectedly.

University of Tasmania student Nitesh Pillay Ravichandar, 24, for example, has not been back in Singapore since February last year.

The third-year law student told ST that the uncertainty of whether he would be able to return after spending time in Singapore, the low number of community infections in Tasmania and not having to wear a mask were among reasons that stopped him from flying home.

The president of the Singapore Students Society at the university noted that the number of Singapore students studying there has dropped from about 60 to around 20.

"This bubble not only benefits us as international students but the universities as well," he said.

The lack of foreign students in Australia has created "a vacuum of international student representation" for fellow students currently in the country, he added.

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While glad that travel to Australia might resume, Mr Aloysius Low, 23, is wary that the air travel bubble might be hampered yet again.

In June, prime ministers of Australia and Singapore said the two nations would work towards an air travel bubble. But discussions occurred just days before infections surged in Sydney and Melbourne, sending both cities into long lockdowns.

In July, Australian Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Dan Tehan said plans for the potential travel bubble were put on hold due to the third wave of the virus in Australia.

Mr Low, a third-year commerce student at the University of Melbourne, has been studying in Singapore since March last year. He said: "Border restrictions have caused a huge impact on my university life, as I did more than half of it virtually. This has really taken away the experience of an international education."

Clinical psychology PhD student Heather Gan, 26, echoed Mr Low's concerns.

She told ST that while she is excited at the possibility of seeing her family after 21 months in Australia, there had been much talk of a bubble before.

She said: "Hopefully, this time, it comes to fruition."

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