International students may be allowed back into Australia well before holiday and business visitors, according to a politician who has overseen quarantine arrangements in the country’s biggest state.

Stuart Ayres, minister for jobs, investment and tourism in New South Wales (NSW), said he was “optimistic” about students arriving at the start of 2021 and would not rule out an earlier timeframe.

“I foreshadow that we’ll be able to open borders to international students, through quarantine regime, much earlier than we’ll be able to open borders to the visitor economy or to tourists,” he told an international education summit organised by the Australian Technology Network (ATN).

The prediction will be welcome news to NSW vice-chancellors who do not anticipate a large influx of foreign students before mid-2021. The state’s biggest institution, the University of Sydney, has modelled its financial projections on an assumption that next year’s initial intake will be some 35 per cent lower than previously expected.

But Mr Ayres said more than 63,000 people had been quarantined successfully in Sydney hotels, and “lessons” from that experience had been shared with vice-chancellors. “An international student is going to be here for a semester, a year, maybe longer,” he told the summit. “That early-stage 14 days [of quarantine] is quite manageable.”

Phil Honeywood, CEO of the International Education Association of Australia, said South Australia and the Northern Territory were likely to be first to open their borders to foreign students.

He said the UK and a Northern Ireland university had recently chartered flights to bring in overseas students. “We’re in danger of being behind the eight ball compared to other countries.”

The summit heard that “social licence” was a prerequisite of any move to bring in international students. “We need to focus on how we get our own house in order [and] ensure safety before we engage in this discussion with the broader community,” said ATN executive director Luke Sheehy.

He said there was an opportunity for entrepreneurs to develop “robust” quarantine services. “Not every university has accommodation on campus to do that.”

Peter Mackey, director of international trade with NSW Treasury, said quarantine would most likely take place in central city hotels. “NSW police have made it clear that they would not support any other [approach],” he told the summit. “They would not be able to manage it if those quarantine facilities were geographically dispersed.”

Craig Robertson, chief executive of the representative body for public training colleges or TAFEs, said Canberra should subsidise and certify quarantine services. He said federal government endorsement would reassure the community about the “quality assurance process” while helping smaller educational institutions that could not provide their own quarantine services.

South Australia’s director of international education, Talliessin Reaburn, said his state was planning pilot flights to bring in foreign university students. But that did not mean other institutions would be left out.

“The aim is to develop efficiencies so that we can [cultivate] a low risk approach for smaller providers,” he said. Overlooking key pathway elements of the international education sector – including schools, foundation programmes and English language colleges – would be “more damaging than some of the things happening now”.