SINGAPORE - Veterinary student Samuel Cheong is worried he might not be able to return to the University of Queensland in Brisbane when his term starts in February.
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 on Friday (Jan 14).
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 like 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 in 2021, as his course did not allow him to attend classes online.
The rules changed from Nov 1 last year, when citizens and permanent residents were allowed to leave Australia without permission.
On Dec 1, measures were relaxed to also 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 for 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, was meant 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 opportunity…nothing beats being there in person, experiencing the music and having opportunities to play on a stage to an audience," said Mr Tan.
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'm 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 2022.
Ms Nicole Ong and Ms Caitlyn Tan, both 23, were among students who did not apply for an international student visa despite enrolling in Australian universities.
Ms Ong, who read biomedical science in the University of Queensland, spent the entire 18-months of her accelerated course in Singapore.
"I felt like I was missing out on the full experience of studying overseas and it was a bummer because I didn't even get to see how my campus looked," said Ms Ong.
Similarly, Ms Tan completed her 18-month long Bachelor of Communication programme in Singapore in December 2021. 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.
A similar situation has been unfolding in Britain as well, where the number of student visa applications from Singapore fell from 2,535 new applications in 2019 to 1,421 in 2020.
Mr Wang Qixin, 23, is a computer science student enrolled at the University of Edinburgh. He has been in Scotland since Sept 25 last year.
"People are a lot less concerned about Covid-19… I hope I don't have to spend more time here than needed, it's actually more comfortable and safer for me to be in Singapore," added Mr Wang.
Mr Tan, who received his booster shot in December last year, is hoping to visit his campus for the first time in Sydney this July.
"I hope things will have settled down by then and I can gain practical experience on campus for my final year," he said.