NSW considers separate Covid quarantine program for international students

By Michael McGowan

The New South Wales government is considering an alternative hotel quarantine program to allow for the return of international students, a “vital” $14.6bn industry decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The state’s treasury department has begun calling for expressions of interest to run the program, which it wants to sit outside the existing 3,000-a-week cap for arrivals from overseas.

“Returning international students must not displace returning Australian citizens and permanent residents and must not overload stretched Health and Police resources,” a notice on the government’s eTendering website reads.

“A solution is required to identify a manageable, ongoing number of regular arrivals outside of the 3,000 per weekly cap that would sit alongside the current quarantine hotel model applying the same protocols and processes and led by NSW Police and Health.”

First reported by the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday, any proposal for a separate quarantine program would need to win the approval of the federal government before it could go ahead.

It comes after the federal education minister, Alan Tudge, gave a speech in which he urged universities to expand online course offerings to target international students while also relying less on high-fee paying students from China and India.

In the speech Tudge said that while the government was hopeful that overseas students would return in large numbers by semester one next year, discussions about bringing students back in smaller numbers before then had not developed.

“I have discussed various plans with government and university leaders but to date have not received any concrete proposal,” Tudge said.

After the speech the Universities Australia chief executive, Catriona Jackson, said the sector had “working closely with state and territory governments over many months to plan for the safe return of international students”.

The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has previously flagged using a third of the overseas arrival cap for international students, but shelved the idea in part because it contradicted the federal government’s prioritisation of Australians returning from overseas.

But NSW is seeking to convince its federal counterparts that a program could exist separately to the existing hotel quarantine program. Australia’s tertiary education sector has become increasingly reliant on income from international students and universities have shed thousands of jobs since the outbreak of the pandemic.

“The return of international students as soon as possible is vital for retaining jobs in our education sector, and for the economy more broadly,” the treasury notice states.

“International education is our second largest export, generating $14.6bn in exports annually before the pandemic and supporting nearly 100,000 jobs in NSW. We estimate in 2021 we have already lost one-third of our international student base.”

The advertisement asked “purpose-built student accommodation providers” based in the Sydney CBD or its fringe to submit expressions of interest “with a view of forming a panel of eligible providers to house international students coming into NSW”.

The NSW treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, told the Herald the government was “examining options”.

“At this stage we are examining options and part of that is looking at how we can bring international students back without reducing our capacity to take Australian citizens wanting to return home,” he said.