Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia and chair of the global reputation taskforce co-ordinating the response to the coronavirus, said it was not surprising students were doing whatever they could to return to Australia.
“We are talking about young people who have invested an incredible amount of time and finances into getting an education outcome from an Australian university or other provider,” he said.
Mr Honeywood said the number of arrivals was “definitely encouraging” but noted there were still 75,000 students stuck offshore who were missing out on studies and potentially looking to study in other countries, including Britain and Canada, which had not imposed travel bans.
Tips on travelling to Australia via third countries have been shared widely on Chinese social media, with the United Arab Emirates, Cambodia and Thailand popular options for the 14-day wait.
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson welcomed students entering the country in line with government health regulations.
“For those who remain offshore, universities have worked tirelessly to provide maximum flexibility to allow them to continue their studies where possible, including online learning options,” she said.
Some universities, including Western Sydney University, the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University, have helped students with travel and other costs incurred by the disruption.
The window for students to participate in first semester tuition on the ground in Australia is rapidly closing, with online learning and other flexible arrangements the only realistic options for thousands of students.
Last week, Australian Border Force commissioner Michael Outram said Chinese students returning via third countries “did what we wanted them to do” by quarantining themselves.
“They were fully compliant with our policy intent, so we’re delighted that those students were able to actually get here,” he told ABC radio.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.