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What does Australia look like without international students?

Angela Lehmann

Discussion of education during the pandemic has focused almost solely on losses of funding at universities, but the economic and social role of international students outside universities has been relatively ignored.

Education, tourism, and regional labour development agendas in Australia have become intertwined. The creation of post-study possibilities for international students, sold by universities as a product and carefully facilitated by immigration policy, has brought the industries together in focus on international students.

The post-study aspirations of international students are harnessed by universities who use the potential to work in Australia to promote their degrees. Employability upon return to one’s home country is one of the main measures of success of universities around the world, and work experience abroad is often seen as key to this outcome, so universities take advantage of this to drive enrolments.

Businesses also take advantage of student aspirations by employing students and graduates. Accommodation providers, local businesses, and the tourism sector all benefit from international student arrivals.

The opportunity for work in Australia after graduating is a major factor influencing students’ decision to study in Australia. According to a recent study of graduate visa holders in Australia, 76 per cent rated access to temporary graduate work as important to making their decision about where to study.

There are two mechanisms that international graduates of Australian institutions can use to achieve their goal of gaining temporary work – the Post Study Work Rights visa scheme (subclass 485) and the Working Holiday Maker scheme (subclass 417 and 462).

While the post-study work visa (or the Temporary Graduate visa) is driven by the university sector, the Working Holiday Maker visa program is driven by the tourism sector. It is easy to see that these cover some of the same ground though, and there is clear interaction between education and tourism within these schemes.

The Working Holiday Maker program allows young people, including graduates who have studied for less than two years, to work temporarily in Australia, and it was specifically designed to allow this interaction between Australia’s education, labour, and tourism markets.

An important element of this policy framework is its positive impact in regional Australia. The education sector and Australia’s labour market are brought together via these visa programs scheme to prioritise regional Australia, and the Department of Home Affairs allows the possibility of an extension of the post-study work period for international students who graduate from a regional institution.

The logic is that this will increase the share of international student numbers in regional campuses, alleviating some of the pressure on metropolitan infrastructure. At the same time, skilled graduates will live and work in regions, contributing to the economy and the skilled workforce in these areas.

Likewise, for those international graduates who have not completed the required two years of study, the working holiday visa allows them to work in specific industries that are facing skills shortages and in regional Australian areas that require that labour to support growth.

Both these visa schemes permit young people to live and work in regional Australia. While they have different slightly different purposes, both allow people from overseas to alleviate Australia’s skills shortage and to promote Australia as a place for tourism and study.

This interaction between education, tourism, and industry is a clever and intentional solution to the challenges faced by Australia’s geographically sparse and densely urbanised society, but the pandemic has placed this ecosystem at threat.

The government’s refusal to help international students and graduates will come at a high cost.

While, in normal times, the international student workforce functions to resolve challenges faced by the education, tourism, and labour markets in regional Australia, along with its other benefits, during the COVID-19 crisis these temporary workers have been left under-supported by the government, universities, and industry. This could have an enormous cost.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call for temporary visa holders to “go home” in April was symbolically important, as well as a practical policy mistake. It indicated to students and temporary workers that they are less important than born Australians and an unnecessary burden on communities that must ‘get on with the work’ of beating the virus.

The symbolism of being told temporary workers were not welcome to stay on gave license to the idea that non-citizens will somehow hinder Australia’s chances of overcoming the pandemic and surviving, or even that they are not useful to Australia’s society as a whole.

The prime minister’s announcement, along with the step of excluding international students from welfare support in the crisis, was a very powerful statement, and said to the country that this cohort of people are a risk to communities and a drain on resources and services. It shifted the burden from the state and its institutions onto temporary workers and fails to recognise what they do for Australia.

Tellingly, there was not a mass exodus after the prime minister’s statement. In fact, there were 18,470 fewer temporary workers leaving Australia in April this year than the previous year – a decrease of 17.5 per cent of departures.

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