Return of overseas students offers nation a double boost

The mantra from political leaders has long been that you must first fix the health crisis before repairing the economic crisis. With Victoria recording 23 consecutive days without a new positive infection or death on Sunday, and South Australia hopeful that its recent outbreak is far more limited than initially thought, across Australia the health crisis would appear well contained.

The financial repair work has certainly begun in earnest. Last week, the NSW government was the latest to open its wallet, announcing $22 billion in tax cuts, infrastructure spending and vouchers to get people out and spending. Victoria will deliver its budget on Tuesday, but has already announced billions of dollars in extra spending on social housing, mental health and infrastructure.

Australian universities’ reliance on international students has been exposed by the pandemic.

One sector that has already lost thousands of jobs, and is facing a bleak 2021, is Australia's universities. A recent report by education think tank Mitchell Institute calculated there are more than 200,000 fewer international students in Australia because of the pandemic, and that figure could rise by another 100,000 by the middle of next year.

And while this is causing the university sector a huge headache, the Mitchell report also points out that almost 60 per cent of the $37.5 billion international students would usually spend in Australia goes towards goods and services in the wider economy.

This is surely a driving force in NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s proposal to use one-third of the state's hotel quarantine slots to bring in international students and skilled migrants, starting in January. The scheme puts her at odds with Prime Minister Scott Morrison and a national cabinet agreement on November 13, which expressly said the priority of hotel quarantine was returning Australians.

On Sunday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews cautiously supported the NSW plan, while also making it clear the priority would be offering Victorians the chance to come home when the state restarts its hotel quarantine program on December 7.

This is understandable while tens of thousands of Australians overseas are still trying to return. But there is an economic imperative here too, and with the future of many thousands of jobs at Australian universities in the balance as the sector faces a financial crisis, Ms Berejiklian's suggestion has merit.

The final call will be with the Prime Minister, but the states can play a major part. First, calls by the opposition in South Australia to shut down its hotel quarantine system entirely should be quickly rejected. Surely there is enough knowledge and experience at running these types of programs across Australia to ensure that any extra safety measures required in South Australia are quickly implemented.

And while Victoria plans to initially cap returning travellers at 160 passengers a day, or 1120 each week, if the program is run safely this time there should be room to increase it towards the 3000 a week that NSW currently manages.

The success of two potential COVID-19 vaccines also offers the strong possibility that those most vulnerable to the virus could begin to be vaccinated by early next year, which should open the way for the further relaxation of restrictions and increasing the number of people entering the country.

Allowing more international students into the country would not only provide a much-needed financial boost to the university sector, but would help re-establish the rich cultural ties that are fostered by the program. The Age supports any sensible proposal put on the table that makes it happen.

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