Australian National University student Hebe Ren was preparing to board a plane from China on Tuesday to resume campus learning when she was notified her flight was cancelled due to the federal government's response to Omicron.
The international relations student was set to become one of the first overseas students to return to Canberra this week. The spread of the new variant means most now won't get the chance until after December 15.
Ms Ren said the uncertainty was the most difficult part.
"I don't believe they will open even on the 15th," she said.
"I've been through this countless times over the past two years."
Ms Ren said the decision this week had left her feeling powerless with little say in her own future.
"I realise no matter how much I've tried I can't control or change my own life. It's not up to me this time," she said.
ANU International Students' Department president Benedict Chin said there were scores of students in similar situations.
Mr Chin said getting to Canberra as soon as possible to secure accommodation and work before classes resumed in February was a priority for many.
He said there was very little trust among international students that the pause announced by Health Minister Greg Hunt this week would be a short delay.
"Last time they did a two week closure it lasted for two years," Mr Chin said.
There had been no confirmed cases of Omicron in the ACT as of Tuesday night, although five people in Canberra have been identified as close contacts after travelling on a flight in which two people tested positive.
State and territory leaders met on Tuesday evening for a briefing on how the detection of Omicron in Australia would disrupt plans to open up.
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said he would wait until after national cabinet to comment on the delay of international arrivals in Canberra.
"At this stage we do not know enough about the new Omicron variant, so it is prudent to be cautious on international borders," he said.
Both the ANU and the University of Canberra have signed up to a NSW government pilot program which would initially welcome two chartered flights of 250 students back to universities in December.
A decision was made on Tuesday to allow an initial flight containing hundreds of students to return on December 6.
UC Vice-Chancellor Professor Paddy Nixon said he was confident the 650 existing students already enrolled would be in Canberra when classes started in 2022.
Professor Nixon said he believed the decision to delay the opening up until December 15 was a measured approach to an unpredictable situation.
"The knee jerk reaction would have been to close the borders without any end date in sight. What they've done is pause a process that was in place," he said.
"I think we see the light at the end of the tunnel that this is a pause, not a closure and it's a sensible thing to be doing at this point."
Professor Nixon said while indications were the demand to study in Australia was still strong, the longer the wait the more that began to dissipate.
"People won't wait forever," he said.
International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood said while national health priorities must take precedence over everything else, this set back would further impact Australia's reputation as an attractive study destination.
Mr Honeywood said Australia had already dropped in ranking from second place to fourth, behind the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, in terms of lead study destinations.
"There's a lot of repair work to be done in order to prove that we are a welcoming supportive study destination country," he said.
"They just want some clarity and they deserve a genuine indicative return."
The ANU said they would continue to plan for whatever COVID and the Australian government federation threw at them to make sure students were able to be on campus next year.
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