Education Minister Alan Tudge believes the COVID-19 vaccine rollout could pave the way for Australia to up its intake of international students as early as the start of next year.
In a speech delivered to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) – the university most reliant on overseas students – Mr Tudge said Australia’s lucrative market for international students could be given a much-needed boost by February 2021.
“With the vaccine rollout under way, I am increasingly hopeful that student arrivals in larger numbers will occur by Semester 1 of next year,” Mr Tudge said.
“I am asked these questions almost daily.
“We are looking forward to welcoming back international students who remain overseas, and we thank them for their patience to date.
“I hope they appreciate that we have closed the borders for a very good reason.”
Mr Tudge, who studied at Harvard in the US, also flagged the possibility for individual universities to bring in international students this year if chief health officers agreed and safe quarantine quarters were provided.
The $10bn international students market has been crippled since Australia closed its international borders at the beginning of the pandemic.
Mr Tudge claimed enrolments at the end of last year were only down 7 per cent on 2019, but it is estimated 140,000 students have been stuck overseas.
The Mitchell Institute at Victoria University also estimates there are 210,000 fewer international students overall in Australia than would otherwise be expected.
Universities Australia recently released data that showed the university sector lost $1.8bn in income last year and at least 17,300 jobs.
“Of course, there is still the opportunity to bring students back in small, phased pilots,” he said.
“This could occur if an institution works with the state or territory government and presents a plan to us for quarantining international students.
“The plan must be approved by the chief health officer of the state or territory and there must be quarantine space available above and beyond that presently used for returning Australians.
“I have discussed various plans with government and university leaders but to date have not received any concrete proposal.”
Mr Tudge said he hoped the federal government would have a clearer idea later this year on when international borders will reopen.
“We are expecting more clarity on these issues by mid-year, at which time we should be more certain on border openings,” he said.