International students, skilled workers to be able to return to Australia from December

By Lisa Visentin and Nick Bonyhady

Fully vaccinated international students and certain other visa holders will be allowed to come into Australia without extra permits from the start of December, but may still be required to undergo quarantine depending on which state they land in.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced categories who will be allowed to come in include people on skilled visas, student visas, refugee visas, humanitarian visas and working holiday visas, with the government anticipating about 200,000 travellers will arrive in the coming months.

International students and other vaccinated visa holders can prepare to return to Australia without quarantine. CREDIT: WAYNE TAYLOR

“The return of skilled workers and students to Australia is a major milestone in our pathway back,” Mr Morrison said at a press conference in Canberra. “It’s a major milestone about what Australians have been able to achieve.”

He said the development could happen because 85 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. Travellers on the scheme will need to be double vaccinated and have a PCR test before they board their flight.

Australia’s universities, which are reliant on international students for a significant chunk of their funding, and farms that use backpacker labour for their harvests have been desperate for the return of migrants and travellers.

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said the announcement was great news for more than 130,000 students locked out due to the more than 18-month long border closure.

“They want nothing more than to re-join their classmates in Australia,” she said. “We look forward to further detail so we can work quickly to get students back for first semester next year.”

Mr Morrison also announced that vaccinated travellers from Japan and Korea will be allowed to come into Australia quarantine-free into states that have abolished quarantine requirements, in an expansion the travel bubble program already established with Singapore. The first flights of Singaporean tourists, students, and relatives of Australian residents and citizens arrived in Sydney and Melbourne on Sunday.

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said the government was working on a figure of 200,000 arrivals in the coming months, adding: “it may well be more than that, but we will be actively looking to bring as many people into Australia as soon as we possibly can”.

She said the visa holders would be required to abide by the quarantine arrangements of the state or territory they enter or seek to move to, with those arriving in NSW, Victoria or the ACT allowed to enter without quarantining.

“Now at this point in time the arrangements for quarantine around Australia are very different,” Ms Andrews said.

Queensland, for example, intends to require international students to quarantine in small cabins at the state’s go-it-alone Wellcamp facility, currently being built by the Wagner Corporation outside Toowoomba.

Western Australia’s internal border remains closed to NSW and Victorian residents, with Premier Mark McGowan setting a 90 per cent vaccination rate before entry restrictions will be lifted, expected late January or February.

International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood said the different quarantine arrangements for each state and territory was a “dog’s breakfast” for students planning their return.

“This is long-awaited news for international students stranded offshore. However, there remains some key challenges including separate state quarantine requirements and the rush to get seats on planes,” Mr Honeywood said.

International students are now only able to enter the country through a limited number of pathways, such as the pilot programs in NSW and Victoria. It is unclear how a broader lifting of the ban on international students will impact these pilot programs, which will see up to 250 vaccinated students a fortnight flown into NSW and on charter flights before Christmas.

The first charter flights will arrive into NSW on December 6 and December 24. Victoria has planned for its first charter flight to arrive on December 23, with five other flights planned for January.