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First international students return as Singapore travel bubble opens

written by Hannah Dowling | November 22, 2021

A file image of a Singapore Airlines A350-900 at Melbourne. (Rob Finlayson)

The first international students to touch down in Australia in nearly two years landed on Sunday, as the two-way travel bubble with Singapore officially began.

Like Australian citizens and residents, fully vaccinated overseas students from Singapore with valid student visas were free to fly into Sydney and Melbourne without entering quarantine.

A number of passenger flights landed in Sydney and Melbourne on Sunday, with both returning Australians as well as the international students onboard.

The first flight to touch down from Singapore under the travel bubble arrangement was Singapore Airlines SQ227, which landed in Melbourne just before 8am on Sunday. Meanwhile, the first flight into Sydney from Singapore was SQ231, which landed at 12:15pm.

It comes after Singapore added Australia as a Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) destination that allowed double-vaccinated Australians to travel quarantine-free to Singapore from 8 November.


Initially a one-way travel lane, the agreement was later reciprocated by the Australian government, which came into effect from Sunday, 21 November.

While the Australian government continues to lock out tourist visa holders, travellers from Singapore with a valid student or migration visa are now allowed into the country for the first time since Australia imposed hard international border policies in March 2020.

Universities Australia, representing 39 Australian tertiary education institutions said that Sunday’s opening to Singapore marks the beginning of recovery for the international education sector.

According to Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson, about 130,000 students enrolled in Australian universities remain locked outside of Australia.

Jackson said the first flights from Singapore on Sunday mark a small, but important step.

“We understand these initial numbers are small, but they are a clear signal of the intent to allow many more students to return to classes and our communities soon,” Jackson said.

Australia’s tertiary education sector relies heavily on international students, with around 21 per cent of all university students coming from overseas. This is far higher than the OECD average of 6 per cent.

The Australian government has long suggested that international students and skilled migrants will be the next cohorts to see eased entry restrictions into Australia.

An announcement is expected in the coming days and weeks, with both the Prime Minister and Federal Treasurer recently hinting that both overseas students and skilled migrants could begin returning by the end of November.

“We’ve said on students in particular and skilled migration, we’ll see that happening in NSW next month in late November,” the Prime Minister said late last month.

However, Morrison remains adamant that tourists and backpackers on working holiday visas are still not going to be welcomed back before the year is through.

Meanwhile, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg instead suggested that skilled migrants could be welcomed back in December.

“Our next step the Prime Minister and our team are working through is to ensure that skilled workers can [come back].”

“To bring that broader cohort of skilled workers as well as international students from overseas will be a very positive thing. As you know, we’ve already seen agricultural workers come from the Pacific to Australia to help work on our farms, and we’re looking at the first available opportunity,” he added.

Asked whether the government has a specific date in mind for such a return, the Treasurer said, “before the end of the year”.

It also comes as NSW is set to begin a pilot program that will see 500 international students brought into the state from 6 December, while Queensland will welcome students from overseas in the new year.

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