The first charter flight of international students is set to arrive in Darwin on Monday under a pilot program to bring students back to Australia.
Up to 70 students from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, and Indonesia are scheduled to arrive at Darwin International Airport at 7:20am on Monday, marking the first time international students have been allowed into the country since March 20.
The ABC understands all the students will be transferred directly from the airport to Howard Springs Quarantine Facility — a former workers’ camp near Darwin — to begin 14 days of quarantine.
Xitao Jiang, a first-year university student from China, said he was “very lucky” to be allowed to return to Australia through the program.
- The charter flight is taking international students from Singapore to Darwin
- Some students said they were disappointed with the Federal Government over travel restrictions
- An expert told the ABC that Australia risks losing its reputation in international education
The 23-year-old came to Australia on a working holiday-maker visa in 2019 but become stranded in China there when he returned to celebrate Lunar New Year.
“My working holiday visa expired in August. Then I applied for a degree at Charles Darwin University because I love the living environment in Australia so much,” Mr Jiang told the ABC.
In October, two days after he paid $2,500 to the university, Mr Jiang received confirmation of his place on the charter flight.
Every student had to pay the same fee for their flights.
Charles Darwin University (CDU) is the first Australian university to allow international students to arrive via the pilot program, approved by the Northern Territory and federal governments. Two previous similar programs in Adelaide and Canberra were put on hold due to the second wave of the pandemic in June.
“This is an extremely rare occasion for me as an international student,” Mr Jiang said.
“When the university said our flight wasn’t cancelled, I was extremely emotional. Many students were in fear of possible cancellation or delay like the flight to South Australia.
“I shared the good news with my family immediately as they were quite nervous about my return to Australia.”
What do we know about the charter flight?
The ABC understands the students were required to take a COVID-19 swab test and send the result to the university within 72 hours of the departure of their flight.
Mr Jiang had his test on Friday morning in China’s north-eastern city of Changchun. He received a negative result within six hours.
For Mr Jiang and others coming from mainland China, a green code on Chinese social media app WeChat — indicating a user was not in close contact with any confirmed cases — was also required by the airlines when they checked in.
On Sunday, Mr Jiang and more than 40 Chinese students from “low-risk” cities will take a flight — operated by Singaporean budget carrier Scoot — from China’s southern transportation hub, Guangzhou.
Students from other countries will board different flights to arrive in Singapore at a similar time.
However, Mr Jiang said students from mainland China, Hong Kong and Vietnam would have to wait for 10 hours in a designated area at Changi Airport, separated from others from Japan and Indonesia.
“That’s because some students from other countries may come from relatively medium- to high-risk areas,” Mr Jiang said.
“The isolation was for safety reasons. I believe it is safe if we take precautions.”
Documents provided by CDU to students said a travel pack that included facemasks and anti-bacterial wipes would be provided to students when they completed check-in.
All students must wear facemasks or other personal protective equipment (PPE) while travelling.
“Basically I plan to sanitise my hands every half an hour while waiting in Singapore,” Mr Jiang said.
“I prepared more than 20 masks and two packs of alcohol wipes.”
Not everyone feels lucky
The CDU has sent a letter to each student regarding their travel exemptions, stating the Department of Home Affairs and Australian Border Force have a record of their visa status.
Students have to give the letter to the airline before they board the flight so they can get clearance for the passengers to enter Australia.
Though Mr Jiang and many others shared their excitement in being able to return to Australia, some students expressed their disappointment at how long it had taken.
Chloe Zhang first arrived in Australia as an international student in 2018, but she said her excitement of studying in Australia disappeared after being trapped at home.
During her time in China, she applied her study to CDU and had been waiting to return to Australia for most of this year.
She said she was “thankful” for the university’s pilot program, but also “disappointed” by how the Australian Government had been treating international students.
Ms Zhang said ongoing delays and changes to Australia’s border policies made her “distressed” rather than “excited” about her return.
“I feel the Government is indifferent to us,” she said.
“Its policy is full of uncertainty.
“I paid for the visa for my study and this is my fundamental right.
“Instead, I finally got approval after a long journey like a nightmare … I am not feeling lucky.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs told the ABC that the Government’s Framework for National Reopening provided guidance to “reopening Australia” to international students during COVID-19.
“The Australian Government is in discussions with all jurisdictions regarding international student returns but the priority remains returning Australians,” the spokesperson said.
“Any plan must be approved by the relevant state or territory First Minister and Chief Health Officer, to ensure the health and safety of Australians and international students.
“Students who are part of this Northern Territory pilot, are not included in the passenger caps so will not impact on the number of Australians able to return.”
‘Shouldn’t take it for granted’
Critics say international students have long been viewed as “cash cows”, as Australian universities recruit more students from overseas to earn a lucrative income for their financial strategies.
More than 100,000 international students have been waiting for approval to return since February.
But Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly said the Government’s priority was to bring Australians home.
Kirk Yan, a registered migration agent and director of Newstars Education and Migration, told the ABC at least 25 per cent of his clients expressed interest in transferring their courses to universities in the United Kingdom or Canada.
“I have some students who dropped from Australian universities, and applied for courses in the UK,” Mr Yan said.
He said Australia had the great advantage in terms of its successful management of the pandemic, compared with other popular study destinations such as the UK and US, but that the Government had sent “unfriendly” messages on several occasions.
“Students remembered some epic scenes clearly, one of them is when the PM told them to ‘go home’,” he said.
“Australia’s international education sector has a certain level of good reputation, but [the Government] shouldn’t take it for granted.
“You can’t just sit back and wait for the students to come back.”
A survey of more than 5,000 international students in September found 59 per cent of respondents were now less likely to recommend Australia as a study destination than before the pandemic.
International student visa applications where applicant is outside of Australia
Several countries have already reopened their borders to international students.
More than 7,000 Chinese students were brought to the UK on 31 charter flights this month by a “working group” including universities, local authorities and businesses.
Canada also reopened its borders to students at approved universities and colleges in mid-October.
“Studying aboard can be the result of years of planning in a family … they don’t want to spend another year just wasting their time,” Mr Yan said.
For Mr Jiang, coming back to Australia means carrying the hopes of the whole family. His family believes overseas education is a valuable pathway that no families in China want to miss out on.
“It means creating more choices for me. It is very important to me and to my family,” Mr Jiang said, adding that he spent two days saying farewell to friends and families before his departure.
“All I wish is to get back to the campus safely.”