DFAT COVID-19 Responses
In Relevance to the Australia Awards Scholarships
The Australian Government has been very quick to respond to the outbreak of COVID-19. At the broadest level, the policy on Partnerships for Recovery has been enacted to reaffirm the country’s commitments to the global and regional development cooperation in the new environment. At the level of the Australian Awards Scholarships (AAS), a set of supportive programs has been issued for Lao and other international students to stay safe and be able to carry on with their study.
On Friday, 24 April 2020, a Q&A Session between DFAT and Some Partnering Universities was held. A number of the responses below are specifically in reference to DFAT’s response and assistance to awardees impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. In normal circumstances, the AAS Policy Handbook is the central reference for policy advice regarding awardees.
1. What is the future of Australia Awards Scholarships beyond 2020 (funding, mobilisation, participating countries)?
DFAT is unable to provide any further information on future Australia Awards intakes until such time as the outcomes of the Federal Budget is announced in October 2020.
The Australia Awards program continues to be a priority for the Australian Government.
SUPPORT TO AWARDEES
2. Is DFAT providing additional financial support to awardees and the institutions for COVID-19?
We understand it is a very difficult time for all of us, no one is immune from the economic and/or other challenges which COVID-19 has presented. We expect awardees to observe the guidance and requirements issued by the institutions in the same way as other students who attend the same institution.
Apart from the additional support provided to those awardees who have completed or are due to complete their scholarships but are unable to return home due to the travel restrictions, DFAT has no plans to provide additional financial support to our awardees. All DFAT payments to awardees and payments of management fees to institutions will continue as normal and will not be disrupted by COVID-19.
3. Is there support available for awardees who are pregnant or are accompanied by their pregnant spouse?
For awardees who are pregnant, clause 14.8 of the AAS Policy Handbook applies. Awardees are required to maintain OSHC for any dependents as part of their visa conditions. The care and support of pregnant spouses’ of an awardee is the responsibility of the awardee.
4. What support is provided to awardees with children who are awaiting their visa approval? What support can be provided when they can’t get Child Care Subsidy?
Awardees are only permitted to claim the Child Care Subsidy if they are on a DFAT sponsored student visa (subclass 500) and their dependents are on the DFAT sponsored visa. DFAT can provide awardees a Letter of Support to facilitate their application for the Child Care Subsidy where awardees experience issues in applying for the subsidy.
EXTENSIONS, SUSPENSIONS and DEFERRALS
5. Is it possible for awardees to receive a scholarship extension if they plan to enrol in a reduced load due to online learning?
In general, the guidelines in the AAS Policy Handbook should be adhered to. This includes engaging in a full-time program of study at all times, unless otherwise approved by DFAT. All extension requests are assessed on case-by-case basis.
6. Institutions have received various emails from their respective Australia Awards cohort advising that due to the challenging and uncertain times with regards to COVID-19 they are concerned how they will perform academically for this semester and are concerned they may fail. What is DFAT’s stance or advice should a student fail? Would it still be reviewed on a case-by-case at the time of grades being released?
Institutions should actively monitor and support awardees, including through early identification of awardees who are struggling academically, in maintaining their academic performance. DFAT will assess such instances in accordance with the AAS Policy Handbook and on the unique circumstances presented by COVID-19 and their impact on awardees.
7. What support and/or possibility of an extension is available for awardees who are unable to complete their placements, e.g. including where awardees request to reduce their studies due to the challenges of remote learning and where PhD and research students have difficulty collecting data?
Institutions should provide support to the awardee, wherever possible, and/or propose alternative options in the first instance. DFAT will assess any extension request where no alternative options are available.
8. For those PhD and research Masters awardees’ who are unable to undertake their field research work due to the COVID-19 lockdown or disruption, could they suspend their scholarship for a period until they can resume their field research work while they remain in Australia? Also, for those who have already returned home to undertake their field research work but are unable to continue due to COVID-19 restrictions, do we put them on suspension?
Institutions should provide support to the awardee, wherever possible, and/or propose alternative options in the first instance. Awardees are not permitted to suspend their scholarship if they remain in Australia. If the scholarship is suspended, CLE payments and all other entitlements will cease.
9. Can PhD awardees return to their home country early and finish their scholarship online?
PhD awardees cannot undertake their PhD studies online outside Australia. However, PhD awardees can return to their home country to finish and submit their thesis after they have completed their studies in Australia. If PhD awardees return home their status in OASIS will be changed to “finalised pending results” and all CLE and other entitlements will cease.
10. For those awardees who are in their last 6-8 months of their scholarship, would they be able to return home early and complete their studies online?
DFAT does not permit awardees to return home and complete their studies online while they remain on scholarship. Permitting this will expose DFAT and institutions to a range of risks pertaining to the scholarship.
The 25% online study rule in the AAS Policy Handbook is a condition for the awardee undertaking online study in Australia only.
11. Additional deferrals - students that have already deferred at least 12 months may require additional deferrals for another 12 months. Can these be considered? For example, an awardee was set to commence a program in July 2019 but did not meet the English requirements and the program only has a July intake, so the student has deferred for 12 months. If the student is not allowed to study online for the July 2020 intake, the student would not be able to commence their program until July 2021.
Any requests for additional deferrals should be put forwarded to the relevant Posts for consideration and approval.
12. The COVID 19 entitlement for those awardees who completed in March/April or are due to complete in May/June covers the OSHC cost for the extension period, but there is also an OSHC entitlement in OASIS. Should the additional OSHC cost be incorporated with the COVID-19 entitlement or should OSHC cost go under OSHC entitlement?
When creating an extension variation in OASIS, the institution should increase the original value of the OSHC entitlement. When the variation has been approved, the original OSHC expense is then reversed in OASIS and re-entered reflecting the new value.
13. What happens if the travel ban is still not lifted after 31 August 2020 and/or there are no available flights to return home?
DFAT will continue to monitor the situation and communicate details to institutions should the period need to be extended beyond 31 August 2020.
14. How do we manage students who are concerned about the risks of travelling and prefer to remain in Australia?
Awardees must observe their scholarship conditions and return home when the situation allows.
It is our understanding that Australia Government will only lift the travel restriction if it is safe to do. DFAT cannot accommodate individual travel preference without any support of policy standards. If awardees are concerned about the conditions and self- isolation requirements in their home country, they need to liaise with their government for any assistance. Where possible, DFAT posts should facilitate with the counterpart government for assistance and advice to the awardees.
15. Should flights be extremely expensive, will DFAT cover the airfare price increase? Is there a cap on this? Should the completion travel entitlements be increased as part of the extension variation to accommodate this possible scenario?
In general, clause 10.6 of the AAS Policy Handbook should be followed including availing of the ‘best fare of the day’. Where costs have been incurred and the awardee is unable to travel on the proposed flight these costs will be covered by DFAT and should be included in the usual manner. DFAT expects airfare costs to be higher in the near term due to limited availability of flights. There is no cap.
Please note that DFAT does not cover airfare costs for awardee families. The accompanying family members of the awardee must leave Australia at the same time as the awardee.
16. Some airlines are not flying but only issuing a credit and not a refund. If we are to book completion travel before the airline concerned resumes flying, do we include the lost fare in the final cost expensed? Unfortunately, some students have also booked flights back for their families (in May) and stand to lose money if those airlines don’t resume flights at the time they are ready to leave. How to manage the non-refundable costs of completion travel already ticketed?
DFAT will cover cancellation and rebooking fees for the awardee’s travel. The costs should be included as part of the costs incurred by institutions. Costs incurred by the family members of awardees will not be covered by DFAT.
17. Can awardees transit through a third country on their return home? What support would DFAT provide for awardees who have to observe 14-day quarantine in a third country during transit travel back home?
Awardees should only consider transit through a third country if the transit does not require an overnight stay in a third country that is subject to quarantine on arrival. DFAT will not provide support for any quarantine requirements in a third country. Therefore, travel routes must not be considered if transits will involve quarantine in a third country. It is encouraged that awardees book direct route flights to travel back home from Australia as far as possible.
18. There are no international flights from some cities where awardees study. Some awardees would need to transit through major Australian cities which may involve an overnight stay. If there is a 14-day quarantine requirement in that Australian city/state, will DFAT cover the quarantine cost for the awardee and their dependents?
DFAT will fund mandatory quarantine costs in another Australian state or territory where there are no alternative flight options available. For DFAT to fund the costs the awardee and their family, if applicable, must be in the process of returning home and travelling together.
19. Will DFAT pay for quarantine costs for the awardee and their family if they are subject to a period of mandatory quarantine in a hotel on return home?
Australia Awards Section (AAS) are aware that some countries have implemented a mandatory quarantine for their citizens on their return home – some with and without the cost to be borne by their returning citizens. AAS continue to engage with our overseas network on in-country quarantine arrangements.
Where awardees and their families are subject to quarantine on return home, institutions should contact AAS and provide further details of the quarantine arrangements and indicative costs. AAS will make an assessment on a case-by-case basis.
20. If an institution is able to obtain international flights for an awardee’s completion travel, but domestic flights within the awardee’s home country are cancelled, should the awardee still remain in Australia via the scholarship extension? If the awardee is required to return home, is there any assistance with accommodation from DFAT whilst waiting for domestic flights to recommence in their home country?
Awardees should return home upon completion of their scholarship at the first available opportunity. If domestic flights are unavailable in the home country of the awardee the in-country Managing Contractor should provide assistance to the awardee and/or their family to assist them to return home.
21. For those awardees who have completed or due to complete their scholarships and where their visa is to be extended to 31 August 2020, can they stay in Australia up to 31 August 2020 even if the travel ban is lifted and return flights are available?
Institutions and awardees should be proactive to ensure that as soon as international flights are available that the awardee departs as soon as possible, and that the departure date is recorded in OASIS to ensure all entitlements cease immediately on departure. DFAT will conduct spot checks, from time-to-time, to ensure awardees are departing Australia in a timely manner as flights become available to return home.
As the visa end date will be the same as the scholarship end date in OASIS, they do not have an additional 30 days to leave Australia. Completed Awardees should be in a position to finalise their accommodation and packing in time to depart on the first available flight.
22. I am concerned regarding travel insurance. Can students obtain this and will DFAT provide any advice/assistance given it can take several days for some awardees to return home with multiple stops in different ports/countries along the way?
Please note that DFAT recommend all awardees take up travel insurance. Travel insurance is not funded by DFAT nor do we provide advice on travel insurance.
23. For those awardees who have to extend their visa due to the travel restrictions, will they still remain on a DFAT supported student visa? Are NOLs still required?
Awardees will remain on a DFAT supported student visa, providing an application to renew the visa is submitted prior to the expiry of the existing visa. This will ensure that AAS visa conditions, including no further stay and the need to return home for two years at the conclusion of their scholarship, will still apply. It will also ensure CLE and other entitlements continue to be paid. DFAT will issue a Letter of Support to facilitate the visa extension application and NOLs will NOT be required.
24. The awardees who have completed their scholarships and cannot return home due to the travel restrictions in place may need to undertake a medical examination for their visa extension. Will DFAT consider covering the medical examination cost for the dependents of the awardee when extending visas?
DFAT will cover the cost of medicals for the awardee under existing entitlements. In cases where the awardee has dependents and can demonstrate that due to a change in their financial circumstances they are unable to pay for the cost of the medical for their dependents, DFAT will cover the cost of the medical.
25. How do we manage awardees who are on scholarship but are unable to return to Australia from their home country due to recently imposed travel restrictions?
The awardee’s status must be changed to “suspended” in OASIS so that CLE and all other entitlements cease. The awardee can return to Australia to recommence their scholarship when they are permitted to travel.
26. Will there be a ceiling set in OASIS for travel and medical costs?
DFAT will reimburse costs based on the costs submitted by institutions. All additional costs should be recorded against the COVID-19 entitlement in OASIS.
Institutions must ensure that detailed explanations are provided in the comments field for each expense accrued as part of this entitlement. Institutions are required to maintain receipts for auditing purposes.
27. Can Supplementary Academic Support (SAS) be used to purchase equipment to facilitate online learning, such as printers, noise-cancelling earphones, monitors, etc?
SAS cannot be spent on items that are not covered by clause 12.2 of the Australia Awards Scholarships Policy Handbook. SAS cannot be used to purchase computer equipment or hardware or software which is intended to be covered by the Establishment Allowance.
28. Will students be allowed to participate in their graduation when it does occur if they have already departed Australia?
Awardees are allowed to participate in their graduation if they wish. However, under the current context, the awardees must follow DFAT scholarship conditions and return home as soon as they have completed their studies and travel restrictions are lifted. DFAT has no objection for the awardees to return to Australia to attend their graduation should they wish to fund their own travel.