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International student accommodation almost empty as sector battles with COVID-19 quarantine and border restrictions

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 14/01/2021 19:52:24 By Kristian Silva
a view of a living room: A room in the Scape Carlton, a large student accommodation tower set to open in Melbourne next month. (ABC News: Chris Le Page) © Provided by ABC NEWSA room in the Scape Carlton, a large student accommodation tower set to open in Melbourne next month. (ABC News: Chris Le Page)

On Melbourne's Swanston Street, the final touches are being put on a $100 million tower for as many as 750 university students.

With a pool hall, cinema and a rooftop with incredible city views, the building's creators had visions of the purpose-built site bustling with university students.

But the building is likely to be mostly empty when the new semester begins in about six weeks.

The Scape Carlton is a symbol of Australia's crippled international student industry, which is feeling the pain of a mass exodus from the country because of the pandemic.

Scape, Australia's largest student accommodation provider, had plans to open five new sites around the country this year, operations manager Jenna Weber said.

"We're looking at an 80 to 90 per cent cut in occupancy," Ms Weber said.

That represents millions of dollars of lost revenue, with students paying up to $600-a-week for a room in Scape's premium buildings.

Scape and other providers are so desperate for students to return that they have been lobbying the Victorian Government to let them charter flights for students and run their own quarantine system.

"A lot of our buildings have single studio apartments - they're perfect to be used as quarantine," Ms Weber said.

"If international students could quarantine with us, it won't bottleneck those Australian residents coming back."

On Thursday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said "bespoke" quarantine facilities were an option his government would consider.

"It would have to be run to [COVID-19 quarantine Victoria] standards," he said.

"It's very important we have that done properly, and that would apply no matter who the group was coming in.

"We can't have every hotel room in the city being guarded by Victoria Police."

'It's very uncertain for everyone'

Figures from the Federal Department of Education, Skills and Employment show 30 per cent of Australia's 542,106 student visa holders were out of the country on January 10.

Most departures occurred in New South Wales (60,394), Victoria (56,824) and Queensland (23,753).

Close to 100,000 Chinese students have departed, along with 12,740 from India and 4,655 from Vietnam, according to the department's figures.

With Australia's borders shut to countries other than New Zealand, it appears unlikely many foreign students will be able to return in the coming months.

Akshana Nagasundaram, a 21-year-old accounting student from Malaysia, left Melbourne last March thinking she would return in a few weeks.

"I left literally everything, I came back [to Malaysia] with just a backpack," Ms Nagasundaram said.

She said she was "holding onto hope" that she could return to study at RMIT this year instead of doing her course online.

"We're not given a proper timeframe, but I know it's very uncertain for everyone," she said.

Green shoots emerging

Dr Peter Hurley, an education fellow at Victoria University's Mitchell Institute, said Australia's international education sector "was yet to reach its lowest point".

"About $22 billion is spent in the wider economy by international students," he said.

"So if we've got, say, 33 per cent of international students who aren't here, that's really going to affect all those people that are reliant on international students.

"The industry supports about 130,000 jobs."

However, Dr Hurley said there were also "green shoots of renewal" for the sector, with more than 7,800 new international student visas approved in November.

The Federal Government has asked each state to outline plans for the return of international students.

A federal Education Department spokesman said, "no final plans have been shared with the Commonwealth".

"Larger numbers of international student arrivals will only be considered when Australians wishing to come back to Australia have returned in substantial numbers," the spokesman said.

New South Wales had announced a program to return 1,000 students to Sydney each week, but reportedly shelved those plans after the Northern Beaches outbreak.

On Thursday, Mr Andrews said his government was still working on its proposal.

"I can't give you a date when we'll finalise all of that work but it's what's dominating a fair amount of our time at the moment," he said.

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14. tammikuuta 2021 21:52:24 Categories: ABC NEWS

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