Oz varsities gear up for returns

Overseas-education | Crystal Wu 5 Jan 2021

One year into the pandemic, the worldwide situation seems to be taking a turn for the worse and students in Hong Kong are reverting back to remote learning. For those studying abroad, things may not be much better.

Since mid-March, Australian borders have been closed to all international visitors and international students have not been able to return to the country.

More than nine months later, the borders are still closed, but, depending on the states and territories, universities have been adapting and are slowly on their way to resuming face-to-face teaching.

The Australian consulate in Hong Kong said about 80 percent of students from the SAR managed to stay in Australia to continue their studies.

At the moment, apart from New South Wales, all states and territories have fewer than 100 cases of Covid-19, which is comparatively milder than the rest of the world.

The major Victorian outbreak in July and August has died down, but it contributed to most of the confirmed cases and deaths in Australia.

Some Australian universities have also been providing specialized help for Chinese international students who have been unable to go back to the country since March. "We worked with Alibaba to set up an internet hub in China to ensure good connections to all UniSA learning resources throughout China and [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries," the University of South Australia wrote.

The University of Sydney said: "To help keep our students engaged, we established a regular e-newsletter and WeChat groups with student Peer Support Advisers, providing support such as one-on-one sessions."

A variety of measures are in place at universities to support international students stranded in Australia and unable to return home for the holidays.

The University of Sydney has been providing ongoing financial assistance and mental-health help to its students.

The University of Queensland has been providing students in need with food and groceries while the UniSA's student engagement unit has coordinated on-campus food and fund-raising drives to help deliver supplies to vulnerable students.

Financial assistance such as hardship grants and student counseling services are also provided by both universities, with UniSA establishing an A$10 million (HK$59.9 million) student hardship fund.

With cases in the states still relatively low, most Australian universities have plans to reopen or have already reopened their campuses.

The University of Sydney and University of New South Wales reopened their campuses in the September term and have plans to keep offering face-to-face classes in the new year, with online learning options for students who were unable to go into class.

The Australian National University in the capital has rolled out the government's "Check in CBR" app and is asking students to scan a QR code every time they enter a new building or change floors.

Some states with a less severe situation were able to keep their campuses open most of the year. UniSA experienced only a few days of closure in November.

Universities in other states are going to provide different modes of teaching to meet students' specific needs. The University of Melbourne in Victoria is "planning a mixed mode of teaching and learning delivery" for the first half of 2021. And the students of UQ can choose from three study modes: internal, with in-person attendance; external, with remote learning online; and flexible, which is a blend of both.

UNSW will be providing face-to-face tutorials and practicals, with lectures continuing online. Digital options will be provided for international students outside Australia as well.

ANU will be providing "a hybrid model of teaching that accommodates both students studying on campus and students studying remotely."

While the University of Sydney has seen fewer students accepting placements for the 2021 school year, the school is confident Australia will remain an attractive destination for overseas students and will be holding a virtual pre-commencement program for all its international students.

Online orientation and information sessions are also going to be provided in other Australian universities to help students transition, albeit remotely, from their own locations.

Even though the travel restrictions have yet to be lifted, the Australian government has been working closely with local governments and universities for the recovery of the international education sector.

The government has been enabling a free further visa application for students who were unable to complete their studies during their original visa validity due to the pandemic and will also be accepting online studies outside the country by student-visa holders toward the requirements for a post-study work visa.

A pilot program by Charles Darwin University, the Northern Territory government and the federal government recently brought in 63 international students on a chartered flight from mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia.

They have gone through pre-departure health screening and two weeks of quarantine and have now been released to their own accommodation.

CDU vice chancellor Simon Maddocks said: "International students are vitally important to CDU. It has been a tremendous effort by our staff to make this pilot program a reality."

The university, the first in the country to welcome back international students, has also hosted a welcoming event for them with "a traditional indigenous smoking ceremony, music and pre-packed meals to take home."

It is also in discussions with local and federal governments on more flights for international students in the coming year and hopefully more states will bring international students back for their education.


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