When PM Scott Morrison announced on Monday that Australia was continuing to “safely reopen to the world”, now allowing students and temporary visa holders to travel to the country without the need for exemptions, there was one group left scrambling for answers: NSW’s international students who had signed up just one week earlier for the state’s pilot plan.
First announced in June then stalled due to NSW’s three-month lockdown, the pilot plan aimed to bring back 500 international students on two chartered flights in December 2021. A select few Indian students were told to finish registration by 23 November to confirm their seat on the charter flight to Sydney on 23 December. (An earlier flight on 6 December would carry students from countries like Vietnam, South Korea, and Singapore.)
“For Indian students, there was one flight with destinations from Mumbai, Chennai, and Thiruvananthapuram which would assemble in Colombo and fly to Sydney,” explained 25-year-old Prayag Sawai, an international student enrolled at the University of Sydney.
“We were quoted a price of around $2,500, which we thought was a decent amount to pay in those uncertain times when we were all desperate to return to Australia.”
However, once commercial flights began to reopen bookings after the PM’s announcement, Prayag was shocked to find flights tickets in January and February available for anywhere between $900 to $1,700 – a quarter of what he had to shell out.
“After the announcement, we’re looking like fools. We paid thrice the amount (of a commercial flight) and then they opened borders for all,” he lamented.
He maintains that the issue here is not the reopening of Australian borders, rather an apparent lack of communication between state and federal governments on the pathway ahead.
By all accounts, the pilot plan will be moving forward as planned, although various requests by the students to travel partner FCM Travel for potential refunds have been denied. Outlined in email communications to students and on the company website the cancellation terms state that a refund will be provided only if the entire flight is cancelled, or a positive COVID test result is returned and a standby student is able to replace the seat. (Indian Link has reached out to FCM Travel for comment.)
Prayag’s understandable frustration with the situation is echoed by Abhishek Rupapara, a postgraduate student of architecture at the University of Sydney.
“Looking at the scenario at the time, we had been waiting around for invites for the pilot plan as we didn’t know when an opportunity like this would come again. We paid the amount almost immediately,” Abhishek told Indian Link.
“A lot of students, myself included, faced issues with the payments. For three days after the money was deducted from my account, I received no communication while others received it within a few hours. I was constantly trying to contact them, and they eventually told me on the last day that my seat was confirmed.”
Having already completed two semesters online, Abhishek had to book a flight out-of-pocket from his hometown of Ahmedabad to Mumbai to make the charter flight. He now has around a month to get documents together, complete necessary shopping, book accommodations, and finalise financial arrangements.
“Everything is happening so quickly; other students have more flexibility with travel dates, prices, and these kinds of additional arrangements now that borders are open. And here we thought we were the lucky ones to go through the pilot plan!”
According to government data, there are almost 20,000 Indian international students studying from outside Australia, most of whom are enrolled in NSW and Victoria universities. Another issue they potentially face upon arrival in Australia is the price of accommodations, which Abhishek alleges skyrocketed after the PM’s announcement.
“We were quite happy when our pilot plan tickets were booked and had looked up accommodation prices immediately. It was around $250 for a room per week. Two days later, after borders reopened, the prices went up to around $450 for the same room,” he elaborated.
It’s an issue that the Council of International Students Australia (CISA) say they are already working on.
“International students are facing really expensive accommodations on their return to Sydney, and we don’t think it’s fair,” CISA National President Oscar Zi Shao Ong told Indian Link. “The education sector was blindsided by the government’s sudden announcement. We understand that circumstances change but this is far too expensive.”
Shocked to hear about the exorbitant prices paid by students on the pilot plan with other cheaper flights now available mere weeks later, he hopes universities will be able to step in.
“I understand these are charter flights by a private company, so the universities aren’t to be blamed, but I’d love to see them take a stance. It’s an unfortunate situation. You can see why these students made this choice, thinking it was their only way back to Australia after a two-year delay. Something needs to be done on behalf of them.”