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What does ‘returning to normal’ look like for international students?

The locked out, locked in, left out, and the lucky

Australia’s border policies in response to COVID-19 have divided the international student community and this problem is far from solved, Angela Lehmann and Varsha Balakrishnan write.

At the end of November 2021, around a third of all Australia’s international students were still outside Australia. Many of these students are still locked out, and until this week were prevented from entering via Australia’s closed national borders. Meanwhile, the two-thirds of students who remain in Australia have also been impacted by the border closure, unable to travel home for almost two years.

While Australia has one national border, the experience of this border is far from equal, with different cohorts of students facing different challenges when navigating it. Australia’s COVID-19 response has created a hierarchy of student mobility and a divided international student community that could have long-term impacts for the recovery of the international education sector.

In the last month, there have been signs of hope for international students, with the border opening to student visa holders on 15th December.

However, even the prompt reopening of the national border does not remove the inequalities experienced by international students during the pandemic. Many students are facing further structural barriers to their mobility that are unevenly distributed across the broader student community.

What is emerging is a four-tiered hierarchy of mobility among international students based on their ease of movement in and out of Australia. Students are now either locked out, locked in, left out - or they are the lucky ones.

For those who have been locked out­ – or stuck in their home country during the pandemic – the announcement of Australia’s imminent reopening provides a very welcome sense of hope after two years away from their studies onshore in Australia.

However, things are not that simple. For those than can manage to secure a visa and a flight, the regulatory context in Australia has been opaque and even seemed arbitrary.

International student social media has been buzzing with students asking questions about what the border opening means for them. Answers to simple questions like ‘Can I travel from New South Wales to Queensland? Or from South Australia to Victoria?’ ‘When do I have to quarantine? For how long?’ and ‘What are the costs involved?’ seemingly change by the day.

From a student perspective, relaxing national borders are a signifier that Australia is opening, but that hope is clouded by anxiety and uncertainty. The locked out group, for now, remains bound by a series of restrictions that are far from clear and far from stable.

The second group are those who have been locked in. These are students who have remained in Australia throughout the pandemic. Those that stayed on were unable to access government subsidy programs such as JobSeeker and many felt forgotten and unwelcome as they struggled to find part-time work and afford basic essentials during lockdowns.

Uncertainty remains about access to flights and whether they can return after a visit home, with some more able than others to afford flights and take the risk of potentially being shut out of Australia for an extended period once they’ve gone.

The third group are those that are left out. While the borders may be set to reopen to students, it is only those who have received a double dose of an Australian approved vaccine who can re-enter.

This might seem straightforward, but this excludes some students who have been studying offshore with an Australian institution and are keen to return for face-to-face learning.

The Russian Sputnik V vaccine, for instance, is a key part of many countries’ vaccination plans, particularly in the Global South, but it is not recognised as approved by the Department of Home Affairs.

Likewise, some Chinese Sinopharm vaccines do not meet requirements. For students who have received these vaccines, their location or home country has arbitrarily created a barrier to their re-entering Australia.

The fourth group are the lucky ones. These are the roughly 250 students onboard the 6 December flight to Sydney who were eligible for the carefully planned and coordinated New South Wales Pilot Program for International Student Re-entry.

These students are studying with a participating New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory-based education provider, and each of them fit tight criteria, including being in the final years of study within priority courses that have compulsory practical components.

These students are able to travel now because some time ago – in a time long before this crisis – they happened to choose an institution based in the state that would be the first to facilitate a pilot re-entry program during a global pandemic.

Policymakers must recognise that, as borders begin to reopen, the challenges for the international education sector will not instantly end. In particular, creating clear and open channels of information is key as Australia continues to resolve these issues.

Recognising the different levels of access and ease with which students can navigate national borders can assist in planning for a more equitable recovery for this group of young people, who are keen to return to study in Australia and who make a major contribution to Australian communities.

First published by Policy Forum on 16 December 2021


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