The region's peak business organisation is urgently calling for an action plan to safely allow international students with existing visas back into the Illawarra and help sustain the education sector.
Illawarra Business Chamber executive director Adam Zarth said international education was a significant contributor to the Illawarra economy with many local jobs depending on it, both directly and indirectly.
"We need a plan to address the fact that there are currently tens of thousands of international students with existing student visas waiting to return to NSW," he said.
"In 2019 the University of Wollongong hosted 8602 international students onshore, of which 6813 study in Wollongong and who each spend on average $16,741 in the local economy.
"In 2018 international students spent $198 million locally which resulted in additional expenditure in the Illawarra region of around $334 million.
"Since COVID-19 restrictions hit, the university has reported a $90 million budget shortfall which will have compounding effects throughout our economy over future years.
"In the same way that we are planning how to reopen businesses in main streets and shopping centres, we need a plan of action to ensure these students return to the Illawarra as soon as possible."
Mr Zarth said iInternational students were part of the fabric of our region, with thousands of students dispersed across Wollongong, Nowra, Bega and Bowral.
A significant proportion are, in the interim, studying remotely in their country of origin.
"We need those students to return and the positive economic impact of their presence will certainly be felt as businesses leave hibernation and return to a semblance of normal."
He said unfortunately a number of students in the region have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19 and are at risk of falling through the cracks of the various support packages.
Mr Zarth added the NSW Government's announcement of a $20 million support package providing emergency accommodation, legal support and a Service NSW hotline was a great first step and will help thousands of international students stranded in Australia without support.
"However, we are not going to wake up tomorrow and find that Australia is completely clear of COVID-19," he said.
"The Federal and NSW Government must now work with education providers to bring international students back to our shores."
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