International students will be able to return to NSW under a state government pilot plan involving a quarantine period in purpose-built accommodation.
Treasurer Dominic Perrottet said on Thursday that 250 international students would be able to come to Sydney each fortnight from mid-year. They will spend their quarantine period in purpose-built student accommodation.
The first international students would under the plan touch down within eight weeks - around the time semester two begins for most NSW universities.
The arrival of these students will be in addition to the 3000 returning Australians arriving in Sydney each week amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plan, which has been endorsed by NSW Health, NSW Police and all NSW universities, has been submitted to the federal government for review.
Mr Perrottet said the NSW education sector was worth $14.6 billion in 2019 and directly supported more than 95,000 local jobs.
More than 250,000 international students typically study in NSW each year and future students could choose other destinations such as the United States, United Kingdom or Canada if NSW remains closed.
He said those countries were now aggressively courting foreign students.
"If we don't act fast, students will turn to other overseas destinations and it could take the sector decades to recover," Mr Perrottet said.
Mr Perrottet said the students would be subject to the same NSW Police-overseen quarantine standards as returning Australians in hotels.
Under the plan, NSW Health will triage arriving students and direct them to quarantine at approved student accommodation sites. This will occur regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status.
One such site has already been chosen, with more to come.
The students will initially arrive on charter flights, with Mr Perrottet listing Thailand, Nepal, South Korea and China as departure points.
The entire pilot program will be university and student-funded.
Mr Perrottet said the overall impact of closed international borders for NSW is as high as $1.5 billion per month, curtailing economic growth.
The lack of international student arrivals amid the pandemic has cost NSW some $5 billion in total, potentially reaching $11 billion by late 2022.
The Committee for Sydney praised the government's plan.
"Universities are a key driver of our economy and local jobs. The pandemic has hit them hard, leading to thousands of job cuts across our city and state," deputy chief executive Ehssan Veiszadeh said in a statement.
"This trend is unsustainable."
The NSW Vice-Chancellors' Committee's Barney Glover also lauded the government, saying it had worked hand in glove with the tertiary sector.
He said the state's universities would prioritise students in disciplines including medicine, science, engineering, teaching, nursing and midwifery, as well as those students undertaking higher degree research.
"International students introduce different cultural and community perspectives and are important members of our academic community," Prof Glover, the committee convener, said in a statement.
"They also create tens of thousands of jobs in sectors like tourism, retail and hospitality that are vitally important to our local communities and will help us accelerate out of the COVID-19 induced recession."
Australian Associated Press