Australia appears set to address international students’ visa gripes just as a resurgence of coronavirus cases on both sides of the Tasman Sea threatens to neutralise Antipodean universities’ upper hand in the race to revive student flows.
Times Higher Education understands that the Australian government may announce new visa arrangements next week, bringing rules for foreign students more in line with those in competitor countries.
The plans are expected to include fee waivers for students forced to extend their stay in Australia because of the pandemic, and to clarify whether online classes count towards the period of study required to qualify for post-course work rights.
This would coincide with a retreat from plans to fly in select groups of international students on a trial basis, in New Zealand as well as Australia. In New Zealand, the education minister, Chris Hipkins, has ruled out a return of overseas students in July or August.
In early May, Mr Hipkins encouraged universities to produce a “concrete proposal” for international students to be readmitted into the country, initially under carefully managed quarantine. But in a late June letter to representative body Isana New Zealand, he scuttled any hope of this happening in time for the start of the second semester.
“International students remain a priority group in the government’s planning for any managed border entry arrangements,” he wrote. But he warned that there were “many details to be worked through, including quarantine and isolation arrangements, monitoring processes and how the costs can be shared by those arriving”.
New Zealand declared itself coronavirus free less than a month ago, arousing optimism that it could boost its share of international students on the back of its successful pandemic management.
But nerves emerged about its ability to safely manage the entry of people from Covid-19 hotspots, particularly when two returnees from the UK tested positive for the disease after being released from quarantine for compassionate reasons.
Similar doubts have surfaced in Australia, after sloppy management of hotel-based quarantine led to a coronavirus outbreak in Melbourne and forced the Victorian government to put 36 suburbs back under lockdown.
This has raised doubts over plans to fly in foreign students – particularly a scheme to jet in some 800 students to Adelaide.
The federal government has said that it will approve such plans only in states that allow untrammelled travel from interstate. South Australia has now scrapped plans to open its borders to Victorians in mid-July.
Ironically, New Zealand and Australia are stepping back from schemes to bring in international students just as universities in northern hemisphere competitor countries – where the coronavirus is far more prevalent – pursue plans of their own.
With Australian educators struggling to harness the country’s mostly successful pandemic management to their advantage, the release of the long-awaited student visa flexibility package will be welcome news.
The International Education Association of Australia said such concessions had been a long time coming. “After three and a half months of advocacy, education providers are frustrated at delays but hopeful that Australia will be in a more competitive position soon,” said chief executive Phil Honeywood.
The UK has increased the competitive pressure, announcing that it will allow international doctoral students to stay for three years after they graduate. However, Australia still trumps the UK on this measure, granting foreign PhD graduates up to four years’ post-study work rights.