What could have been a usual 12-to-16-hour plane journey, turned into a long struggle for Kanika*. Due to Australia’s stringent border closures that have been in place since March 2020, it took her a year and three months to reach Australia to pursue advanced studies.
Not too many international students have been given inward travel permissions, a reason why Kanika considers herself fortunate.
- International student enters Australia two days after India travel ended on 15 May
- The 24-year-old is a PhD student at a university in Queensland
- Kanika* received inward travel exemption before the India travel ban was announced
- New student enrolments from India down by half, dropping 52% compared with 2020
A student visa holder from India, she made her first entry into Australia on 17 May, barely a few hours after the government lifted the controversial India travel ban.
The 24-year-old PhD scholar is currently in a quarantine facility in Brisbane.
“I was due to travel and start my doctorate in science at university in Queensland in April 2020. But after borders were closed for temporary visa holders, I had to defer my course for one full year,” says the student from Chennai in southern India.
After waiting for nearly a year and hoping that border restrictions would ease, Kanika finally decided to apply for an inward exemption in January. It took her five attempts to get approval from the Australian Border Force.
But as luck would have it, her world came crashing down when the second wave of COVID-19 hit India earlier this year, prompting the Australian government to pause all flights from there.
“I was one of the very few fortunate student visa holders who managed to get an exemption, but the travel ban threw a spanner in the works, and I once again, had to abandon my travel plans, but not once did I give up on my dream to study in Australia. I was lucky that I got my exemption way before the ban was announced.
“Once I heard that the Australian government had decided to lift the ban on 15 May, I immediately called up Qatar Airways’ booking line who informed me that there was one available flight on 16 May. I didn’t waste a second and immediately booked it,” says a determined Kanika.
But even though she managed to secure herself a seat on a plane to Australia, her journey wasn’t smooth.
“When I reached Chennai airport hours before my flight, there was massive confusion amongst the staff with regard to my right to travel to Australia, given that I was a temporary visa holder. But once they verified my exemption with the ABF and all my tests returned negative, they allowed me to board the plane,” Kanika recalls.
“The same thing happened at Doha airport but was quickly resolved, and here I am,” she says.
The young student who aspires to build a life in Australia, says she had always heard that perseverance pays, but never realised that it would turn into a real-life lesson for her.
“To all those who are currently stranded in India, irrespective of your visa status, remember never to give up and keep trying. If you are destined to be here, nothing can stop you from living your dream,” the 24-year-old adds.
Temporary ban on exemption requests for travel from India:
While Kanika is one of the few student visa holders who have managed to enter Australia amidst a travel ban, those like her still stuck, especially in India, are abandoning their plans of studying Down Under due to the government’s temporary ban on discretionary inward travel exemptions for temporary visa holders currently in India.
The recent decisions and the lack of clarity on when Australia would most likely reopen its international borders, are leading many international students to take their dream of a foreign education to destinations like Canada, which has pledged permanent residency pathways to at least 90,000 student visa holders.
A recent survey of over 6,000 students conducted by IDP Connect, a UK-based student recruitment agency, suggests overseas students are keen to study on campus, with 39 per cent participants likely to choose other destinations if it meant they could access face-to-face learning sooner.
Andrew Barkla, CEO of IDP Education, said countries such as Australia need to give students reassurance and a timeline for their return to on-campus learning.
“The research clearly shows that an online offering cannot replace the on-campus experience, nor is it what the majority of students want,” he said.
“Students have shown a real willingness to quarantine and vaccinate and are open to starting their studies online. This flexibility and commitment should be repaid with clear and welcoming policies that acknowledge their enormous contribution to the Australian community,” Mr Barkla added.
Meanwhile, industry leaders are expressing their frustration at the ongoing delay about the execution of plans to fly back international students amidst a dramatic drop in new student enrolments, which poses a threat to the university sector that is already buckling under unprecedented financial pressures.
Earlier this month, Universities Australia’s Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said governments across all jurisdictions need to come together with universities to develop a robust plan for the safe return of international students from low-risk countries.
“The sector took a $1.8 billion revenue hit last year. Universities Australia conservatively estimates at least another $2 billion will be lost this year – against 2019 actual operating revenue,” Ms Jackson said.
Quoting assumptions mentioned in the latest Budget about Australia’s border closure, she underscored the serious challenges the university sector faces.
“With assumptions around borders being shut until mid-2022 now baked into the Budget, the picture for universities will get worse. There will be significant flow-on effects for the nation’s research capacity and jobs inside and outside universities,” she said.