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Why it is important to bring international students back

18 Mar 2021

One year ago Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued one of the defining statements of the COVID-19 pandemic: “Australia is closing its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents.”

It was the right call in protecting all Australians but one that we all know has come at a price.

The NSW economy in just the June quarter of 2020 contracted by $13.8 billion. That equates to a loss in activity of almost $1700 for every person in the state. Pleasingly, in NSW, more than 80 per cent of the jobs we lost at the peak of the pandemic last year have been recovered – about 220,000.

Despite another drop in the NSW unemployment rate on Thursday to 5.6 per cent, the end of JobKeeper looms and this will be keenly felt in hard-hit industries such as tourism and education services.

Last week’s tourism support package announced by the federal government highlighted that sector’s ongoing woes, with international borders still firmly closed, and interstate travel still seen as precarious by many due to the hyper-sensitive lockdown reflexes of certain states.

No worker or business operator I know wants to live indefinitely off the public purse. They want to get back to the productive jobs and careers that sustained them before the pandemic, and will continue to sustain them long into the future.

It would be an unforgivable travesty if sectors were ready and able to start up again but were unable to do so solely because governments are getting in the way, whether through lack of ambition, or lazy attachment to inflexible rules and regulations. That is why I have been among the most vocal advocates for getting the international education sector up and running again.

This isn’t about putting international students before returning Australians who are still overseas. It is about finding a way to look after both. And the reason is often lost.

The students and education sector are affected by the closures of course, but so too are tens of thousands of people in NSW whose livelihoods before the pandemic depended on international education.

It is astonishing to me that more people are not trying to find ways to enable one of Australia’s largest export sectors to get going again – an industry worth about $14 billion a year to the NSW economy before the pandemic, and which supports one local job for every three students who study here.

To put it in perspective, international education is a bigger employer in NSW than agriculture, mining and real estate.

The other hidden cost is to the key research undertaken by our leading universities, who are missing the contributions of higher degree research and PhD students from offshore.

With a sensible, safe quarantine plan, it is entirely viable to have this sector up and running again, putting thousands of families in NSW back on their own two feet, which is the only pathway to recovery.

But to make it happen, we need the co-operation of federal and state governments around the country, which is why our government approached Tasmania to broker a possible solution. While that did not come to fruition, it demonstrates the lengths we have gone to – and will keep going to – to help vital industries get moving again.

But this can’t just be a NSW issue and this was a point I made at Thursday’s Board of State and Territory Treasurers meeting. There is a growing realisation across state and political party lines that as we enter the second year of COVID-19, the current situation cannot continue as the new normal.

We are working to find a solution that can operate alongside the international arrivals caps mandated by national cabinet for each individual state. This is something NSW will continue to explore with the university sector and other states.

If Australia is to ensure it has a long-term future beyond being an exporter of resources and agricultural products, we must act now to restart and reinforce our struggling service export industries, particularly international education.

The losses incurred in the international education sector last year were unavoidable. A second lost year will cost us not only billions from the bottom line. If we also fail the class of 2021, it will hurt the tens of thousands of people employed in the sector and will cost us for years to come.

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