It has been almost12 months since international students last arrived en masse in Australia, ready to begin the 2020 university year.

Many more, ready to commence their Australian studies, saw borders close before they could arrive – and by the end of 2020, some 138,000 international students were enrolled at Australian universities, including CQUniversity, but studying from their home countries.

These students are acutely aware of what they’re missing out on-our vibrant university experience, our global industry connections,innovative workplaces, the inimitable Australian lifestyle.

But Australia stands to lose just as much, as education experts estimatethe number of international studentsin our country will drop to half the pre-coronavirus cohort by July this year.

While international students are patiently making the best of a tough situation, we need a plan to make it better.

In recent months, we’ve seen governments hurriedly move mountains to ensure Australia’s top-tier sporting events can go ahead – signing off on international charter flights, opening new streams of quarantine accommodation, arranging“isolation bubbles” for training.We’ve also made special arrangement for farm workers, international seafarers and aircrews.

So why is there still no staged and strategic plan to welcome back international students, despite international education being Australia’s third-biggest export?

International students injected $37.6 billion a year into Australia’s economy before the pandemic hit. (The Australian sporting industry, by comparison, contributes less than half that amount.)

Nearly 60 per cent of that figure is what international students spend on goods and services once they get here – and that’s just the start of their contribution to the Australian community.

In 2019, we welcomed 876,000 mostly young people to our shores, generating employment for 130,000 Australians.

CQUniversity’s international student cohort, coming from over 80 different countries, is a small portion of that number.

But I’ve seen first-hand the value they bring as students, workers, generous community members.

And they graduate as advocates of our great nation, sharing their Australian experiences wherever their careers take them. Indeed, 84 per cent of graduates return to their home country to pursue employment.

Australia’s international education boom of the past decade has too often been derided as creating “degree factories”.

In reality, nationaland university-level regulations ensuring the quality of our education are vast.

At CQUniversity for instance, we make an offer of enrolment to just one out of every nine foreign applicants. Our rejection rate is so high because we are uncompromising in our vetting process; scrutinising academic records, English language proficiency, financial capacity to support themselves while studying, performance in a formal interview, and study intentions and career aspirations.

While domestic students can be enrolled on the spot and beginstudying almost immediately, international students face a gruelling 12-18 month process of tests, forms and background checks.

And yet, they still clamour to come.Such is the pull of our universities and our lifestyle, that the Australian sector was about to overtake the United Kingdom as the world’s second most popular study destination.

But for how much longer will international students put their study dreams on hold?

While Australia is the envy of the world for how we’ve controlled COVID-19, destinations like Singapore, Japan, the USA, Canada, and even New Zealandhave already moved to welcome back international students. Surely this is not beyond the will of Australia.

Australian universities are ready and willing, albeit with the highest degree of COVID safety to ensure public health remains the number one priority.

Small and controlled cohorts could arrive on chartered flights, quarantine in independent accommodation, and meet strict travel requirements, as our sector prioritises health and safety above all else.

The burden on the taxpayer would be non-existent (with students or their universities footing the bill), and commercial airline seats and government quarantine processes would remain prioritised for returning Australian citizens.

There is even an opportunity for our regional communities to get a bigger slice of the international education benefits.

While foreign students have traditionally preferred city education, regional centres like Rockhampton, Mackay and Cairns – among the safest destinations in the world and barely touched by the ravages of COVID – could emerge as new education leaders and attract international students in their thousands.This could transform economies in those areas and create new opportunities for growth and employment creation.

CQUniversity, with campuses across regional Australia, understands that our regions desperately want fresh opportunities in the wake of the pandemic downturn.

We’ve already seen massive breakthroughs in logistics, treatment and science for dealing with COVID-19.

It’s time for a breakthrough in how we welcome back our international students, and the vast economic benefits they bring – safely, with a smile, and before our competitors take away Australia’s market.

Professor Nick Klomp is Vice-Chancellor of CQUniversity. He is entrusted with the safety, wellbeing and success of more than 7,500 international students from 88 different centres, plusmore than 2,000 staff and 25,000domestic students, working and studying at CQUniversity campuses across the nation.