Australia will recommence granting international student visas and allow current students to count online study while overseas in a push to restart international education.
The changes, announced by acting immigration minister Alan Tudge on Monday, respond to demands from the university sector to help it attract international students and revive what was Australia’s third-largest export before the Covid-19 recession.
The announcement was cautiously welcomed but caused confusion in the university sector, which had demanded that current and future students gain the ability to study online.
Guardian Australia understands that despite being left off the announcement the concession will also apply to future students.
Australian universities face an estimated $16bn black hole due to a massive drop-off in international student numbers, compounded by warnings from China against its citizens coming to Australia to study.
Tudge said the government would change student visa arrangements to “ensure Australia remains a priority destination for international students as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic”.
Under the changes:
The government will recommence granting student visas, allowing travel to Australia as soon as borders reopen
International students will be able to lodge an additional student visa application free if Covid-19 prevented them completing study under their original visa
Current student visa holders studying online outside Australia due to Covid-19 will be able to use that study to count towards the Australian study requirement for a post-study work visa.
Universities Australia’s chief executive, Catriona Jackson, said she welcomed “sensible changes to visa arrangements for those currently enrolled” but cautioned “we need to understand what the changes mean for prospective students”.
“We believe that new, as well as current, students should be included in the amended arrangements for post-study work rights,” she said.
“It is not clear that this is the case, and we continue to seek confirmation of this important point.
“Many new students will be adversely affected by Covid-19, and they should be treated the same as continuing students.”
Group of Eight universities’ interim chair, Margaret Gardner, the vice-chancellor of Monash University, said the group was “pleased government has recognised the need for flexibility around visa settings in the current circumstances”.
“This will ensure students who have been forced to study offshore due to travel restrictions will still have access to post-study work rights.”
Tudge said the changes were “guided by the principles that the health of Australians is key, but that international students should not be further disadvantaged by Covid-19”.
Monash University to cut 277 jobs as slump in international students bites
“We are a welcoming nation with a world-class education system and some of the lowest rates of Covid-19 in the world.
“Students want to study here and we want to welcome them back in a safe and measured way when it is safe to do so.”
The education minister, Dan Tehan, said Australia’s “remarkable efforts in controlling the spread of the virus mean we can begin to welcome back international students in a Covid-safe way once state borders reopen and face-to-face learning resumes”.
Although the government has guaranteed its $18bn contribution to universities, it has effectively excluded them from wage subsidies, contributing to big job cuts at institutions including Monash and the University of New South Wales.
Australian universities have begun drawing up plans to allow international students to return under a series of pilot schemes.
The first approved pilot at the Australian National University and University of Canberra was put on hold indefinitely as coronavirus cases spiked in Victoria, despite the federal government suggesting a border ban with Victoria would not be a bar to pilots going ahead.