Australia risks “eroding” its reputation as a welcoming place for international students if it does not offer them hope about when they can return to the country to study, a senior diplomat has said.
India’s high commissioner to Australia, Manpreet Vohra, said extended travel restrictions could cause frustration, uncertainty and anxiety among thousands of students who have been unable to travel to Australia to undertake their courses, adding that online education was “not what they signed up for”.
In an interview with Guardian Australia, Vohra said he was urging the Australian government to spell out a timeframe for a staged, Covid-safe return to on-campus studies so students had something “to look forward to”. It would be “a pity” if students ended up turning to other countries to continue their studies, he said.
In the interview, Vohra also revealed Indian and Australian officials could begin talks on a free trade agreement within weeks – an idea the Morrison government is pursuing as it attempts to offset ongoing tensions with China.
‘A lot of frustration’
About 158,000 student visa holders remained outside Australia as of the start of July. That figure included 17,008 students from India, which is second only to China (88,769) for the number of student visa holders currently outside Australia.
Vohra said the impact of the curbs on student travel was “a big issue” for the Indian high commission, “but first and foremost, it’s a very big issue for the actual students affected by these travel restrictions”.
He said students would understand the restrictions if they continued for a reasonable length of time. “But if they go on without any determination about when they are likely to end, then it leads to a lot of frustration, it leads to a lot of uncertainty, it leads to anxiety,” he said.
“That is not good for the students, of course, directly affected; that is perhaps also not good for the overall image of Australia as a great place for Indian students.”
Vohra said it would be entirely reasonable for the Australian government to devise rules for students who wished to return – such as insisting they were fully vaccinated and tested for Covid-19 prior to departure and quarantining for two weeks on arrival.
“They signed up for education here in your universities, they continue to pay a substantial amount of tuition fees. They are getting online education, of course, but that really is not what they signed up for,” he said.
“We’ve been requesting the Australian government to consider ways and means to at least signal to the students a timeframe by which they can expect to be back.”
The Australian education minister, Alan Tudge, acknowledged last week the pandemic had been “a particularly challenging time” for many international students, and said they would be welcomed back “as soon as possible”.
The government was working with universities, states and territories on plans “to return international students when conditions allow”, Tudge said.
The chief executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, said universities understood “the anxiety felt by international students who are unable to return to Australia to continue or complete their studies”.
“The logistics of remote learning can be challenging, including issues such as time zone differences and the variable levels of internet access for students studying overseas,” she said.
Jackson said the current outbreaks of the Delta variant in Australia posed challenges to the plans for pilot programs for the safe return of limited numbers of international students.
Sign up to receive the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning
Vohra said Australian federal and state governments and universities had made “painstaking efforts” over recent years to improve Australia’s appeal to Indian students, and “it would be a pity to see that eroding”.
When asked whether students might turn to other countries if the travel restrictions extended into next year, he said: “I do feel that that might well happen. I think it’ll be a pity, because Australia has very successfully attracted a very large and growing number of Indian students, and I’d like to see that continue.”
At the end of April, the Morrison government announced that anyone who had been in India in the previous two weeks and attempted to return to Australia would face jail and hefty fines, amid concerns about rising case numbers in the country.
That measure – which prompted United Nations human rights officials to raise “serious concerns” – was allowed to lapse as scheduled on 15 May.
Vohra said India understood “why it was done” and respected the Australian government’s decision – but said even today there were no direct commercial flights between India and Australia, except for the government-organised Qantas repatriation flights.
He said expert advice “should frankly be also showing today that the situation in India is vastly improved”, and “we do feel that it’s time that direct airlinks were, again, permitted to be resumed”.
Trade talks set to begin
Vohra welcomed the former prime minister Tony Abbott’s five-day trip to India last week, which included a meeting with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. The trip has attracted some domestic political criticism in Australia given Abbott is still registered as a trade adviser to the British government.
Vohra said India welcomed increased engagement with Australia and wanted “to do more on the trade and investment front”.
He said the prospects for starting negotiations on a free trade agreement were “very bright”.
“You might well see the negotiators to start meeting in the coming weeks and months. And there is ambition on both sides, as has been expressed by us to Australia and by Australia to us, to do this, to do this quickly, to do this well.”
Vohra, an experienced diplomat who arrived in Canberra in April, said India and Australia had complementary economies and would seek a “balanced” deal. The talks would include the sensitive issue of agricultural market access.