A charter flight carrying 63 international students has landed in Darwin from Singapore.
The students — from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, and Indonesia — are the first cohort of international students to be permitted into Australia since March 20.
The students will be transferred directly from the airport to the Howard Springs quarantine facility to undertake 14 days of quarantine.
The facility has been used to quarantine Australian coronavirus evacuees from Wuhan and the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, seasonal fruit pickers from Vanuatu and is currently housing repatriated Australians who had been stranded overseas.
The Northern Territory Government brokered a deal with the Federal Government and Charles Darwin University (CDU) in September to fly up to 70 international students to Darwin.
The students were required to test negative to coronavirus 72 hours before departing for Darwin.
The students covered the costs of the charter flight and CDU will pay for their quarantine.
Earlier this year, the ACT and federal governments planned a pilot program to fly back 350 continuing international students to Canberra so they could recommence their studies on campus in semester two.
That was delayed after the second wave of coronavirus struck Melbourne.
In late August, a new program yet to be finalised was announced in partnership with South Australia to bring up to 300 students to the state.
The success of the CDU pilot program and future attempts to reinstate international students on Australian university campuses could prove pivotal for the sector.
Analysts forecast Australian universities would lose $19 billion in student revenue over the next three years if international borders remained closed until the end of 2021.
‘Exciting’ time for rare international arrivals
Wulan Morling waited at Darwin Airport from 7:00am this morning for her nephew to arrive.
When she caught a glimpse of her nephew Rifqi they shared a wave as he walked through the arrival gates towards the bus to Howard Springs.
It will be the 18-year-old Rifqi’s first time living overseas. He travelled from Jakarta in Indonesia to study cookery at CDU.
“He’s been waiting — he was supposed to start in July — so just kind of waiting for the process, and bit anxious to see if he can come here,” Ms Morling said.
“But then CDU, with this charter flight, it’s really, really exciting [for him] to come here finally.”
CDU vice-chancellor Simon Maddocks said Darwin was the ideal city to trial the intake of international students given the Northern Territory’s success in containing coronavirus.
He said it was a “significant moment” for CDU as the first university in Australia to receive overseas students again.
“We’ve been working with both tiers of government for the last seven months to facilitate this opportunity,” he said.
“I think there is no doubt that the fact that there’s been no community transmission in the Territory, the fact that we have the Howard Springs facility, which sits outside the immediate community and provides a secure environment … I think all of these things came together to give [governments] comfort.”
Mr Maddocks said the university is currently working on plans for another international student flight in January and further flights in the first six months of 2021.
“All being well, we hope we can continue to run these flights through the early part of next year as we see the Australian Higher Education system and the vocational training system return to engaging international students,” he said.
“They are very important for universities. They are very important for our local economy here in Darwin.”
Australians stranded overseas should take priority, Senator says
The efforts to organise flights, exemptions and quarantine arrangements for the international students have been sharply criticised by Tasmanian independent senator Jacqui Lambie.
Senator Lambie this morning described the pilot program as “sickening”, contending Australians stuck overseas should be brought home before any intake of international students.
“What I’m supportive of is getting our own back home first before we take any students anywhere, that would be the right Australian thing to do,” she said.
“And there’s plenty more, there’s still thousands more that need to be brought home and we need to bring them home.
A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said that bringing Australians home was the Federal Government’s “priority”.
“The Australian Government is in discussions with all jurisdictions regarding international student returns, but the priority remains returning Australians,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said students who are part of the CDU pilot program have not been included in Australia’s returning passenger caps.
Last week, the Northern Territory doubled its cap on Australians returning to the country via the Howard Springs quarantine facility to 1,000 arrivals per fortnight.
The cap increase followed a Senate hearing that revealed more than 36,000 Australians have registered their interest with DFAT to come home.
The Federal Government has been coordinating the repatriation flights through Darwin, which have so far returned more than 1,000 Australians since October.