The first group of international students to arrive in Australia since the introduction of hard coronavirus border restrictions are back on campus in the Northern Territory after being released from quarantine.

Their arrival at Charles Darwin University on Tuesday, which was marked by a traditional smoking ceremony, could pave the way for more overseas students travelling to Australia to study.

Francois Brassard is from Canada but was living in Hong Kong before his arrival. He said the decision to travel thousands of kilometres for his education was bittersweet.

“At this point, I had to choose between either going back home for an extended period of time and then being stuck there for perhaps half a year or even a year, or studying,” he told SBS News.

“Studies were a high priority, so I decided to come here. But, yes, I won’t be able to go home for a while.”

The group of 63 students are part of a pilot program organised by CDU and the Northern Territory and Australian governments. They’re a mix of new and continuing students from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia.

The students landed in Darwin last month by a private chartered flight and undertook pre-departure health screening before quarantining at the Howard Springs facility near Darwin for two weeks.

On Tuesday, they arrived on campus at CDU.

Poyan Wong is a new student joining the university and said she feels lucky to have been chosen to come to Australia as part of the pilot program.

“I mean, the timing was just perfect,” she said.

“I spent some time with friends and family in Hong Kong and then I took the flight over here.

“I love Australia – I finished my bachelor’s degree in Australia, also. I love the environment here; I love the people here and that’s why I chose CDU.”

The pilot program is expected to boost the Northern Territory’s economy and help plan the re-entry of international students to other states.

Charles Darwin University Vice Chancellor Simon Maddocks said the university is leading the nation by becoming the first to welcome back international students.

“It’s been wonderful to welcome these students on to campus and their arrival will provide a significant boost to CDU and the Northern Territory economy,” he told SBS News.

“Analysis shows each of these newly arrived students will contribute more than $40,000 to the local economy each year. International students generated $145 million to the NT’s economy in 2019 alone and supported more than 600 jobs.”

Mr Maddocks said the university organised a “comprehensive” support program for students during quarantine, including care packages, safety briefings and daily phone calls.

Universities across Australia have been in touch with CDU to hopefully use the program as a litmus test for more international students arriving back to Australia.

“Every university in Australia has been in touch with us,” Mr Maddocks said.

“They’re delighted to see the pilot program successfully run because I think it all gives them an understanding that maybe opportunities will continue to develop next year for them.”

Since February, the Howard Springs facility has housed repatriated Australians, residents travelling from hot spots and seasonal workers.

The Northern Territory government said it is adamant the students aren’t taking the place of Australians stranded overseas, in the facility or on flights.

Deputy Chief Minister and Minister for International Education Nicole Manison said there was room for both.

“Clearly the priority of the prime minister is the repatriation of Australians and we know that there is an extensive list there,” she said.

“However, we are going to be continuing our discussions with the Commonwealth about when we can look to bring more international students here to the Northern Territory.

“So far, we have repatriated thousands of Australians and we’re going to continue doing that going into Christmas and the New Year.”

The university says more student flights are expected in the New Year.


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