Education Minister Alan Tudge says digital vaccine certificates could provide a pathway for bringing large numbers of international students into Australian universities without a need for quarantine.
The proposal relies on finding a way to link verified COVID-19 vaccine certificates to a new digitised system for incoming passenger cards that the federal government aims to implement later this year.
Mr Tudge stressed a number of preconditions would need to be satisfied before any such scheme could be considered, including availability of an effective vaccine.
The federal government has been looking very carefully at the concept of a “vaccination passport”, given some countries were already rolling out COVID-19 vaccines.
“If a vaccine works and stops the spread, and it can be rolled out effectively in source countries and we can have surety over vaccination certificates, then there is the potential to be able to bring in more international students without them having to quarantine,” Mr Tudge told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
“In part, that would be facilitated by the fact that we’re digitising the incoming passenger card. Our aspiration is that we would then be able to electronically staple an authenticated, biometrically connected vaccination certification to that card.”
Mr Tudge first raised the proposal in December at a meeting with international education experts when he was acting immigration minister.
Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said earlier this month the government was closely considering the concept of a vaccination passport but added ″for the moment, vaccination will not be an alternative to 14-day quarantine″.
Mr Tudge said there were about 164,000 international students enrolled in Australian universities who were unable to enter the country due to the border closure.
The risk posed by protracted border closures to Australia’s international education system – one of the country’s largest exports and worth $40 billion to the country’s economy – is one of the biggest challenges facing Mr Tudge this year.
He was appointed Education Minister in December after a reshuffle in which his predecessor Dan Tehan was promoted to Trade Minister.
Universities have reported steep declines in applications and enrolments from new international students for semester one, fuelling concerns Australia is at risk of losing market share to rival countries such as Canada and the UK, which have opened borders to offshore students.
In December, the Australian National University’s vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt urged Prime Minister Scott Morrison to issue a positive message to foreign students that they would be welcomed back as soon as it was safe to do so.
Mr Tudge said he “strongly encouraged” offshore students to continue enrolling in Australian institutions and to start their visa application process.
“My message to those international students overseas is, of course we want to bring you back to Australia and we are working on how to do that safely and without impacting the number of Australians who can come home,” Mr Tudge said.
“My advice would be to start your online studies with an Australian university and apply for your visa so that you are ready to go when the border situation changes.”
The Morrison government first announced plans for the “Digital Passenger Declaration” in October, which can be filled out using phones and computers, as a replacement for the paper-based incoming arrival passenger card.