Australia: International students to start returning to Australia, but crisis not over for Top End

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If the Northern Territory's borders remain restricted for much longer, Sushan Khatiwada could be among a legion of international students looking at education destinations elsewhere.

He has faced months of limbo while studying at Charles Darwin University (CDU) remotely from Nepal, a nation raved by coronavirus.

His internet has been unstable and he has had "no human connection" with his classmates.

"Initially, I found it very overwhelming … I even thought of maybe changing my decision to study in Australia," he said.

The border rules mean international students — a pillar of the NT's economy, with each student contributing more than $40,000 each — are starting to look overseas or interstate for their education.

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When Mr Khatiwada was accepted into his course at the beginning of the year, he expected to be studying at the bustling campus in Darwin.

But the university has been a ghost town, with hundreds of overseas students waiting for Australia's restrictions to lift.

"We had no idea they would go on for this long," he said.

His bags have been packed for months in anticipation of a second government-facilitated charter flight that has not yet got off the ground.

He is even prepared to pay the cost of his own flight and quarantine.

"I know a lot of students who have told me that if the border restrictions do not get lifted in December … they will be transferring their courses to other universities in probably New South Wales," he said.

International students look set to return to Queensland universities in time for the first semester next year, under the government's new plan which will see them undergo two weeks of quarantine at the Wellcamp facility near Toowoomba.

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Up to 250 fully vaccinated international students will be able to travel into New South Wales each fortnight from early December, and will be required to quarantine in purpose-built student accommodation in Sydney.

CDU vice-chancellor Scott Bowman said student numbers had languished in the Northern Territory amid uncertainty on a timeline.

"We have lost students to other countries, particularly Canada and the UK, and now we're starting to see that some other states are opening up and we are seeing some evidence that Territory students are going to the other states," he said.

"We really need to give the students some certainty as soon as possible."

The pandemic was a "massive blow" for the university, but for reasons more than a precipitous income loss, Mr Bowman said.

At the beginning of 2020, the number of international students had risen 8 per cent to 2,119. But Mr Bowman said numbers had dropped swiftly this year to 2044 international students, and were still on a downwards trajectory.

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"Our international students are the lifeblood of the university campus … the lifeblood of Darwin," he said.

"Many restaurants are not open because our students can't go and work there."

Maggie Law, a student from Hong Kong studying a master of teaching at CDU, was part of the first batch of international students to arrive in Australia after the pandemic began under a pilot program organised by CDU and the Northern Territory and Australian governments.

She said the "direct interactions with the lecturers" and the "peer groups" were a game changer for her learning.

Mr Bowman said CDU has been working with the NT government to get a second charter flight off the ground, to no avail.

"It doesn't seem to be getting anywhere," he said.

"We've done everything we can."

CDU, in competition with Australia's top tier universities, has reduced fees for international students currently enrolled overseas by 25 per cent.

And it would consider paying quarantine fees or facilitating accommodation for home quarantine, Mr Bowman said.

Late in August, CDU released final design plans for its new $250m government-backed campus, which is in the midst of construction in the heart of Darwin's city.

Expected to open in 2024, Mr Bowman said the "state-of-the-art facility" would be a major drawcard for international students.

"They are used to that bustling kind of life where the action is, and I think that will be a big pull," he said.

International Education Minister Nicole Manison said the government was preparing to lodge a plan with the federal government.

If approved, it could see up to two flights carrying a maximum of 180 students touch down in Darwin in January 2022.

"International students are a massive contributor to the Territory economy, with each student contributing an average of $40,693 each year," she said.

"By facilitating a pathway for international students to return to the Territory and to Australia, we are helping to diversify the economy, grow our population and support local jobs."

Australia's education sector at a crossroads to keep its place in the global market .
Australia's international education sector is facing a critical time as it tries to recover from COVID border closures and keep its footing in the global market.The 26-year-old came to Australia from India as an international student in 2014 and graduated with a bachelor's degree in accounting three years ago.

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