Unlike in the United States, living on campus is not the norm for students in Australia; renting a room in a shared house off campus is often a rite of passage. Fewer than 1 in 10 opt for the full residential experience, but those who do must contend not only with restrictions to prevent virus transmission but also doubts about whether enough is being done to protect them.
“They did close the common rooms at first, so you couldn’t really do anything — you just had to stay in your room,” said Paris Raynes, a first-year marine science student at James Cook University, in the tropical city of Townsville, who lives at a student residence called the Village.
Since then, despite a no-visitor policy and a 10-person limit on gatherings in common areas, things have become more relaxed.
“At one of the colleges the other day, they even had a party with about 150 people,” said Raynes, using “colleges” in the Australian sense to refer to residential halls rather than the overall campus. “We’ve had a lot of people from other colleges coming over, and that [no-visitor policy] hasn’t been enforced.”
While events of up to 500 people are permitted without special approval in Queensland state, which includes Townsville, the university said staff could fine students $20 for breaches of campus rules on crowd sizes. A university official said protocols were in place to aid contact tracing.
Queensland has reported few coronavirus cases recently. But the virus has returned with a vengeance in Victoria, where residents in state capital Melbourne are enduring a severe lockdown to defeat the second wave.
At the University of Melbourne, students have been able to leave their apartments only for compassionate reasons or to exercise, and no-visitor policies apply at college residences across the city of 5 million. Yet officials have still grappled with lapses in contact tracing.
“The regulations aren’t being enforced within the building,” said Mara Wearmouth, a student who lives at a private hall affiliated with the university. “I’ve forgotten to wear a mask down to reception twice and was never told off.”
A university spokeswoman did not address questions about enforcement but said the institution has had a coronavirus plan in place since March, including safeguards for student accommodations.
The pandemic’s toll on Australia has not reached the scale seen in the United States, but universities have suffered a huge financial blow. Higher education had become a vital export in recent years, accounting for nearly 2 percent of Australia’s economic output.
Students from China, India and other Asian nations have fueled the boom. But Australia’s border closure has left many unable to start or resume their studies, with a limited number of institutions offering online-learning material to those stranded abroad.
That means additional incentive for universities to virus-proof facilities for the return of international students, who account for many of those who live on campus.
The University of New South Wales, which last month said it had cut roughly 500 jobs because of the “reduced international student intake,” has implemented staggered dining times, bans on alcohol and social gatherings, and app sign-in checkpoints to ensure safety. But again, students worry about lax enforcement.
“I have not once seen a campus or Village security guard on patrol enforcing social distancing measures,” said Callum Donnolley, who lives at the UNSW Village, a student residence on the Sydney campus. “The Village requires all visitors to sign in at reception to log who is here, but this is not enforced, and many visitors have come to the Village without logging in.”
The UNSW Village, which is operated by Campus Living Villages, said it is following state health advice and doing all it can to enforce coronavirus regulations.
“Each of our Villages has a covid safety plan in place and these plans align to the recommendations of the state government and department of health guidelines,” said John Schroder, the group’s managing director.
This includes visitor registration, audits and putting staff on-site 24 hours a day. Like the University of Melbourne, the UNSW Village wasn’t specific about enforcement measures.
In Melbourne, where the lockdown will persist until at least mid-September, Wearmouth worries about the mental health of students from overseas.
“The government hasn’t been too kind when it comes to letting international students back in the country,” Wearmouth said. “It forces those who want to go back to their families — but don’t want to risk being locked out of the country they attend university in — to stay here, which has been taking its toll on my friends who are international students.”
Seeking to retain enrollments, eight universities have proposed a “secure corridor” to allow the return of students from countries that have contained the virus. But a trial program to allow students from Asia to return to the Australian National University in Canberra was postponed because of containment fears.
Dan Tehan, the federal education minister, has said more steps are needed, such as reopening state borders and resuming face-to-face learning, before Australia can welcome back international students.