The peak body for Australian universities says a NSW government plan to reintroduce international students to the state is pleasing given their “large role in cultural and economic life”.
Treasurer Dominic Perrottet said on Thursday that 250 international students would be able to come to Sydney each fortnight from mid-year. They will spend their quarantine period in purpose-built student accommodation.
Under the plan, the first international students would touch down within eight weeks – around the time semester two begins for most NSW universities.
The arrival of these students will be in addition to the 3,000 returning Australians arriving in Sydney each week amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plan has been submitted to the federal government for review.
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said in a statement that about 50,000 university students enrolled in NSW institutions are currently based outside the country and learning remotely.
“It is pleasing to see progress in NSW, where international students play a large role in cultural and economic life,” Ms Jackson said.
National Union of Students president Zoe Ranganathan said the overseas-based students were battling financial stress, deteriorating mental health and a reduced quality of education.
“We have been hearing from hundreds of stranded students this year, most of whom are pleading for any information about when a return to Australia will be possible,” Ms Ranganathan said in a statement.
Mr Perrottet said the NSW education sector was worth $14.6 billion in 2019 and directly supported more than 95,000 local jobs.
More than 250,000 international students typically study in NSW each year and future students could choose other destinations such as the United States, United Kingdom or Canada if NSW remains closed.
He said those countries were now aggressively courting foreign students.
“If we don’t act fast, students will turn to other overseas destinations and it could take the sector decades to recover,” Mr Perrottet said.
Mr Perrottet said the students would be subject to the same NSW Police-overseen quarantine standards as returning Australians in hotels.
Under the plan, NSW Health will triage arriving students and direct them to quarantine at approved student accommodation sites. This will occur regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status.
One such site has already been chosen, with more to come.
The students will initially arrive on charter flights, with Mr Perrottet listing Thailand, Nepal, South Korea and China as departure points.
The entire pilot program will be university and student-funded.
The lack of international student arrivals amid the pandemic has cost NSW some $5 billion in total, potentially reaching $11 billion by late 2022.
The Committee for Sydney praised the government’s plan.
“Universities are a key driver of our economy and local jobs. The pandemic has hit them hard, leading to thousands of job cuts across our city and state,” deputy chief executive Ehssan Veiszadeh said in a statement.
The state’s universities will prioritise students in disciplines including medicine, science, engineering, teaching, nursing and midwifery, as well as those students undertaking higher degree research.