International students are finally returning to Australia.

A charter flight with 63 international students touched down in Darwin at 7.30am on Monday as part of a pilot program with Charles Darwin University (CDU) that aims to help the country open its doors to overseas students once again.

It’s the first time overseas students have been allowed in the country since the government imposed harsh border restrictions in March due to COVID-19.

Students are enrolled in a range of programs across law, nursing, IT, teaching, accounting, and engineering.

After following strict guidelines prior to and during their flight, the students – who hail from China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, and Vietnam – will now spend 14 days at the Howard Springs Quarantine Facility.

CDU Vice-Chancellor Professor Simon Maddocks said he was excited to have the cohort of international students return to the university’s campuses.

“They will be studying at our Casuarina, Waterfront, Palmerston and Alice Springs campuses and are very excited to come to the Northern Territory to study,” Professor 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.”

CDU recently announced a restructure that saw the 77 full-time jobs disappear with 36 staff taking voluntary redundancy and the remainder being let go.

Universities around the country have struggled to cope with the loss of revenue caused by the sudden disappearance of international students.

Now they are facing increased competition from countries like the UK and Canada who have already begun intaking students from overseas and could pose future risks to the education sector which the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade estimates was worth $37.5 billion in 2018-19.

Previous plans to open borders to students had been cancelled such as the Australian National University’s Safe Passage Student Return pilot program which aimed to see a charter flight of 350 students rock up in Canberra but was turfed out as the second wave of COVID-19 hit.

International students

Data from the Department for Home Affairs shows the significant drop-off in overseas applicants for student visas.

From 2015-2019, the month of July, for example, saw an average of around 17,500 student visa applications from overseas. But fewer than 4,000 people applied in July 2020.

That loss could cause a negative flow-on effect for IT courses and the local industry overall as the majority of applicants to Australian IT courses since 2016 have come from non-Australian citizens, according to data from the Department of Education.

ACS CEO Rupert Grayston said he was glad to see the return of international students to Australian shores.

“International students are an important part of Australia’s IT landscape and ACS welcomes their return to universities,” Grayston said.

“We understand COVID-19 has disrupted many study plans and hopefully the Charles Darwin University pilot program will help pave the way for students to continue their progress toward becoming IT professionals.”

Last year was a bumper year for international enrolments in Australian IT courses with around 75,000 students with non-Australian citizenships signing up – an increase from just over 60,000 in 2018 and nearly 44,000 in 2017.