The University of Wollongong could be thrown a lifeline in the coming weeks, as the NSW Government looks at ways of allowing international students back into the country via hotel quarantine.
On Thursday, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she was concerned about the long term survival of some universities - especially in the regions - and was looking at ways to save the jobs and economic flow on benefits at those institutions.
This comes after the Illawarra Business Chamber revealed that UOW's international students usually spend more than $144 million each year within the region - a figure that recreates a major economic ripple effect which may be missing this year without swift action.
Executive director Adam Zarth warned that the university's COVID-related financial woes - including losses of $90 million - would have compounding effects for years, and called for a plan to help the tens of thousands of international students with existing student visas waiting to return to NSW.
Ms Berejiklian said she shared concerns about regional jobs and economies and was looking at ways to allow overseas students back to study.
"I worry about the jobs in the regions especially in our regional universities," she said. "They employ literally in the regions tens of thousands of people, and of course our sandstone university in the larger cities are also suffering, but not to the same extent as the regional universities.
"If we can support them potentially, I'm not suggesting in June or even July, by using the quarantine process we've already set up to make sure it's 100 per cent safe, then I think we should consider when foreign students are allowed back to complete their studies here to ensure the survival of those jobs."
"Many regional communities rely on the local university for jobs and the supply chains that are created. They are a critical part of our economy."
She said the state had demonstrated its ability to process thousands of returning travellers though hotel quarantine in the past two months, and indicated the government would be looking to use that system for students. She said NSW could become a "gateway to Australia" for students returning to all states.
"The plans are still in the formative stage, we're not in a position to announce anything... So can I please stress these are just early developments of the plan."
The state opposition has labelled Ms Berejiklian's comments "a thought bubble" and called for quicker action to save the higher education sector.
"Our international education sector is worth $13.9 billion to our State's economy, supporting close to 100,000 local jobs," Labor Shadow Minister for Trade and Investment spokesman Mick Veitch said.
"This so-called plan is nothing more than a thought bubble, and it shows Gladys Berejiklian either doesn't understand the problem, or she doesn't take it seriously.
"The real problem in NSW is there are thousands of international students stranded in NSW right now.
They can't get home, they can't work, they can't pay their bills and they can't buy food.
"This will damage our international reputation as a good place to study, and it will reduce the number of international students who visit Australia in the future."
NSW Labor said the government should follow Victoria's lead and provide rescue package to fund survival grants of up to $1100 for international students experiencing hardship, possibly with co-contribution from universities.
They also said the Premier should advocate in National Cabinet for the inclusion of temporary visa workers, including international students, to be included in the JobKeeper program, and call on other universities to follow Western Sydney University's lead and offer international students a 10 per cent fee rebate as a cash injection.
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