EXCLUSIVE

More than 1000 international students have quietly been allowed to "jump the queue" and enter Australia during COVID-19, while a whopping 40,000 Aussies remain stranded overseas.

Figures obtained by NCA NewsWire reveal the Australian Border Force Commissioner has granted 1050 foreign nationals an exemption from Australia's international travel ban since the start of August.

The federal opposition has blasted the decision, saying the 40,000 Australians should be Scott Morrison's priority.

"Instead he's letting international students and business investor visa holders jump the queue," Labor senator Kristina Keneally said.

"If Scott Morrison had implemented a national quarantine plan from the beginning of this pandemic, Australia would be in a position to safely welcome international students without their arrival coming at the expense of stranded Australians."

An Australian Border Force spokeswoman said people seeking an exemption must provide evidence of a "compelling case" and meet exemption categories, which includes students in their final two years of study of a medical, dental, nursing or allied health profession university degree.
Those students must also have a confirmed placement at an Australian hospital or medical practice that starts within the next two months.

One university in the Group of Eight had at least half of their 65 international medical students granted a travel exemption.

Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said the longstanding chronic problem with regional supply of doctors was becoming acute.
Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said the longstanding chronic problem with regional supply of doctors was becoming acute.

Group of Eight chief executive, Vicki Thomson, said the universities had provided supporting evidence for students that fitted the exemption criteria.
Ms Thomson said rural, regional and remote communities relied heavily on overseas student graduates from Australian medical schools.

She said about 600 international graduates entered the workforce every year but COVID-19 had caused serious disruptions.

"If medical students can't get back into the country, then this will impact the pipeline of new doctors into the system over the next few years," Ms Thomson said. "There will be a shortfall."

She said there was also a risk that if international students deferred their studies now, the intern system would not be able to handle the influx when they returned.

A Universities Australia spokesman said some PhD students may have also received exemptions on the grounds they must return to complete research critical to their degree.

Staff at Melbourne Airport prepare to transfer returning travellers to hotel quarantine. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Ian Currie
Staff at Melbourne Airport prepare to transfer returning travellers to hotel quarantine. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Ian Currie

International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood welcomed the limited travel exemptions made available.

However, he said they were only the "tip of the iceberg" compared to the number of third and fourth year students that remained offshore.

"Whether it be travel challenges or gaining approval for the exemptions, we are still way behind competitor countries such as Canada, the UK and New Zealand," Mr Honeywood said.

Nursing degrees are popular among international students from South Asia, while dentistry and medicine attracted students from across the globe.

High commissions are also understood to have written supporting letters to boost student exemption applications.

But Mr Honeywood said he was aware of dentistry students in Canada that were unable to return to their Melbourne University courses.

Education Minister Alan Tudge was last week asked if a cohort of international students should come to Australia.
"Our priority from a national government is on bringing Australians home," Mr Tudge said.

He did not respond for comment about the exemptions.

More than 210,000 people have returned to Australia through hotel quarantine arrangements.

At least 35,000 foreign nationals have been granted an exemption to travel to Australia since the March ban to January 31.

Sixty-three students arrived in Darwin under an international student trial held in November last year.

South Australia is also planning to bring in up to 300 students in pilot early this year.

Originally published as International students 'jumping the queue'



MP backs royal commission into veterans’ suicide

Premium Content MP backs royal commission into veterans’ suicide

‘I don’t want to see a witch hunt’: Southern Downs MP James Lister argues for set...

Top 20 Qld suburbs sponsoring foreign kids

Premium Content Top 20 Qld suburbs sponsoring foreign kids

These are the Queensland suburbs that have dug deep to sponsor children overseas.

How Queensland businesses can cash in on Olympics

Premium Content How Queensland businesses can cash in on Olympics

Businesses in Qld will have the chance to cash in on a 2032 Olympics