The Andrews government is being urged to “consider all options” to get international school students back into the country, including putting them on charter flights and into residential quarantine.
Education Minister James Merlino met with principals from state, Catholic and independent schools on Tuesday afternoon, but offered them no commitment on when overseas students might be allowed back into the state.
Oakleigh Grammar principal Mark Robertson with international students Sinky and Betty.Credit:Penny Stephens
More than 40 high-fee Victorian schools are proposing that year 11 and 12 students from low-COVID places such as China, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong and Cambodia would take exclusively commissioned charter flights to Melbourne. The students would then go into hotel quarantine with parents or school staff, and rejoin Victorian classrooms.
Separately, the Australian Boarding School Association is in talks for international students to quarantine, alongside school staff, at hotels in South Australia and Tasmania.
But the government has warned it will not rush to revive the state’s biggest service-based export, with Premier Daniel Andrews saying on Tuesday that it was “very, very challenging for us to have international education in person anywhere near what we’ve had”.
“I take no joy in this because it’s a big part of our Victorian economy, but it is naive and it’s simply not right for anyone to assume that there’s going to be tens and tens of thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands of international students turning up in Victoria any time soon.”
Coronavirus border closures last year forced students to choose between staying in Australia indefinitely and returning to their home country for remote learning.
Many educators are increasingly pessimistic about the prospect of students returning this year, with the Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia flagging no large-scale returns until 2022.
Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, urged the Victorian government to “show some flexibility on equity grounds” for senior school students who had been “caught offshore through no fault of their own.”
“Whether we can have some flexibility from the Victorian government, allowing for example homestay quarantine where they could be effectively isolated in a residential setting or a boarding school-type setting which many of the independent schools have anyway,” he said.
Oakleigh Grammar is part of the group of private schools seeking government approval to bring back foreign students. Combined they are licensed to educate about 3850 international students.
The schools, which include Eltham College, Camberwell Grammar and Genazzano, warned in August that disruption to Victoria’s international student market posed an “immediate existential challenge” that left many non-government schools without a “vital revenue stream”.
Oakleigh Grammar’s head of admissions Jane Tepper said: “Agents are very upfront and letting us know that the UK and the US, even with the COVID issue at the moment, they’re accepting students still.
“We have no COVID but we can’t get them across our border.”
Two Catholic schools in Sunbury have been closed as a precaution after two further COVID-19 cases emerged at the Holiday Inn quarantine hotel on Tuesday.
Prior to the pandemic, Australia had one of the biggest international student population per capita. Victoria has more international school students than any other state or territory, with more than 9500 enrolled in 2018, primarily from China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Almost two-thirds attended government schools.
More than 100 state secondary and 50 state primary schools are also accredited to teach international students, but have had to suspend new intakes this year.
Many students who enrolled last year and paid fees to the Victorian Department of Education and Training have been unable to return to Australia to complete the program.
Pitsa Binnion, principal of McKinnon Secondary College, said some students remained in Melbourne with their host families over summer holidays, when normally they would have returned home.
About 10 students enrolled at the school are stuck in their home countries, Ms Binnion said.
“We’ve got an obligation to these kids,” Ms Binnion said. “These kids have signed up to come to Melbourne. We’ve said to these kids that we will educate them, they’ve started and then their journey has been interrupted.”
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