International students could head back to Australia within months if universities devise plans for how they can be safely quarantined and cleared of coronavirus.
The higher education sector has been hit hard by a drop-off in international students as the coronavirus led to border closures.
International education is one of Australia’s largest export industries — worth more than $35 billion per year to the economy.
In 2018, tertiary educators raked in $8.84 billion in fees from overseas students – 26 per cent of their total revenue.
The government’s early move to stop people coming from China was especially damaging, with that country the largest source of international students to Australia.
Experts have warned the impact of the pandemic on international student numbers will be felt longer than the global financial crisis.
While each university has a different exposure to the downturn, it is estimated that revenue will drop by $3 billion across the higher education sector this year.
That could cause the loss of up to 21,000 jobs, with 7000 estimated to be research-related academic positions.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said universities should put forward suggestions about how they could bring international students back to campuses.
“We are welcoming of proposals for universities, subject to it being at the same time as their general student populations, to look at means of bringing back through supervised, stringent quarantine, international students,” he said on Wednesday.
“That is something that both state and federal governments would be willing to consider.”
In February there was a 41 per cent drop – 61,400 people – in the number of overseas higher education students arriving compared with the previous year.
This continued through March, with a further 10 per cent fall in arrivals, and in April just 30 people on temporary student visas arrived in Australia.
By comparison, in April last year 46,480 students arrived.