Too little, too late? Students, staff weigh in on international student return

Reporting by Ngoc Lan Tran

Parafield Airport. Source.

outh Australia has followed NSW in approving the return of international students in mass numbers.

UofA Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) Jaqueline Lo announced the approval of the International Student Arrival Plan (ISAP) last Friday, 18 June. Details around student eligibility, quarantine requirements, and costs have not yet been finalised. Upon return, students are required to complete a two-week quarantine at a proposed Parafield Airport hub.

Professor Lo’s full statement is available here.

Previous attempts to greenlight the program were deferred in November 2020 and February 2021 as new cases emerged in New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland.

According to an October 2020 university-wide email, offers to be repatriated under the plan have been made available for up to 160 UofA students, out of a cohort of 300 across three universities (including UniSA and Flinders). Students seeking to join the program needed to demonstrate a requirement to attend face-to-face classes to complete their degrees. Their locations and visa status are also considered.

In 2020, international students brought $254 million in revenue for UofA, approximately one-quarter of its $977 million total. Semester 1 international enrolments went down by 17% compared to the same time last year.

UofA hosts ~9,000 international students, the most of any South Australian university, while UniSA comes in second at ~6,000.

Federal government in control

Professor Lo previously expressed the university’s desire to fast track the ISAP. She maintained the decision was ‘ultimately in the hands of state and federal governments.’

‘[The university] is not stopping. We have worked across different sectors to ensure a safe and secure return for our international students. We try to provide solutions for the logistics of the project.

‘Despite what you have heard in the media, no state and territory has come close to solving this problem because of this.’

Professor Lo referred to the federal government greenlighting international students arrival plans across the country.

‘We can do more’

‘Right now, there are more than 10,000 higher education students studying with South Australian institutions who are outside the country,’ peak representative body Universities Australia stated in a media release.

‘We want to welcome them back as quickly as possible so they can join their Australian classmates on campus.’

An anonymous university staff member stated that while the program is a significant change in the right direction, it is unfortunately ‘too little, too late’.

They observed that most returning offshore students are from locations with a very low number of active COVID-19 cases. They suggested the government can afford to welcome back more students, and that this program is not enough to financially revive Australian universities.

‘The federal government did not help by withholding JobKeeper from public universities,’ they said, recalling the federal government’s decision which cost over 20,000 jobs across higher education. In early 2021, 157 University of Adelaide staff left their jobs through a voluntary separation scheme. Chief Operating Officer Bruce Lines estimated that this scheme saved the university $21 million.

They also were critical of Education Minister Alan Tudge, who suggested the sector should be focusing on domestic enrolments.

‘This is not a zero-sum game. International students do not affect the education of domestic students. If Australian students were affected, it is because of another policy by the federal government.’

Vice-Chancellor Peter Hoj last month said that without a ‘rapid re-opening of borders’, the drop in international enrolments could threaten Australia’s research capabilities and competitiveness.

‘It is critical for the future of South Australia that our number 1 export industry, education, is able to thrive again, by bringing international students back to the State in a safe and responsible manner.’

Students rejoice (with a grain of salt)

SRC International Student Officer Jia En Sit encourages everyone ‘to be patient with the planning process to ensure the safe and successful return of international students.’

‘I would like to remind you that trusting reliable sources of information is important. Hence, please keep yourself informed with the official communications from the university. If you have any queries regarding the plan, it would be great to check FAQs and information provided on University of Adelaide and StudyAdelaide websites.’

Emily, a student currently in China, is also excited about the news. ‘This is like a dream! The project has been cancelled several times before, but it seems this time it is very likely that we will get to return.’

‘I really hope it won’t be cancelled. Otherwise, I’ll cry all over again.’

StudyAdelaide international student ambassador Yeganeh Soltanpour says it is ‘about time’ but made a blistering assessment of Australia’s international student policy.

‘I’m devastated that [the government is] also doing this for the wrong reasons — they are more concerned about Australian education institutions closing (such as Eynesbury and two other colleges) and Australian teaching jobs being lost due to no incoming international students, than thousands of students pleading to to return to campus.

‘The SA government has avoided the elephant in the room for far too long, and it took trampling their belongings for them to finally acknowledge it.

‘I’m honestly just grateful that students can come back and come to Adelaide. They deserve to be here, to have the complete university experience as full-fee-paying students.

‘The fight isn’t over yet, for the time being nothing is set in stone, and hotel quarantine may cost thousands [of dollars]. But I think after what international students have been through, this is their big break.’

Noah Beckmann, president of the National Union of Students SA State Branch, also stresses the need to ensure welfare for incoming students while not overlooking the conditions of current international students onshore.

‘Whilst overall it is a good thing to see this opportunity available to them, there should still be some concern regarding their ongoing welfare, and whether the government will be assisting them in finding secure housing and employment after their quarantine period.

‘There should also be some concern over the cost borne by the students to quarantine, and there is a lack of clarity about who will be prioritised in the return program.

‘More also needs to be done to support international students doing it tough on shore already. Too many of them are facing precarious work and accommodation conditions, all whilst paying exorbitant fees for the privilege to study here in Australia.’

Arrival dates have yet to be announced.

DISCLAIMER: When speaking to On Dit, Yeganeh Soltanpour made clear that her views are entirely her own and not expressed on behalf of StudyAdelaide.

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