A plane filled with 250 international students touched down in Sydney on Monday as Australia continues to edge toward re-opening borders for overseas students and skilled workers.

Students from over 15 countries were on the first flight which was part of the NSW government’s International Student Arrivals Pilot Plan which saw the state’s universities join forces to welcome students back after lengthy border closures.

A second flight is scheduled to arrive on 24 December.

Chloe Zhu, an undergraduate with the University of New South Wales (UNSW), said she was excited to be on the first flight back.

“I’m looking forward to being back in Sydney, catching up with friends, strolling around the campus, joining student societies and clubs, and starting my colourful university life,” she said.

Fully vaccinated international students and other eligible visa holders were scheduled to be allowed back into Australia from 1 December but the emergence of the Omicron variant pushed that date back to 15 December.

The students who arrived on Monday had been granted an exemption to travel restrictions.

UNSW Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs welcomed back the international students saying they “play a vital role” in the university’s community.

“The vibrancy they bring to our university has been sorely missed,” he said.

“We are pleased to have achieved the first step in this program. While uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 Omicron variant remains, we remain cautiously optimistic today's cohort will be the first of many to arrive for the start of first term next year.”

Australia’s universities, which had long built their businesses on the high fees they charge international students, have struggled through the pandemic-enforced border closures.

Jobs in the higher education sector were slashed in the first year of COVID as over 17,000 staff were shown the door.

And one report has estimated that universities will never return to their peak levels of international student arrivals seen in 2019 – which could see $6 billion in lost revenue.

University of Woolongong Vice-Chancellor Alex Frino is much more optimistic, however, telling the ABC on the eve of international students arriving again that he thinks the return to normal will happen quickly.

“I think that we're going to recover a lot of lost ground next year, possibly 25 to 50 per cent of the ground, we lost since 2019,” he said. “And hopefully back to normal by 2023.”

An estimated 150,000 people with student visas are stuck overseas but there are concerns that they may choose not to begin or continue their study in Australia.

A recent survey found one in five international students have changed their minds about studying here given uncertainty around both overseas and domestic border restrictions.