Back in the beginning of April, as the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Australia, the blunt message from Prime Minister Scott Morrison to international students was "it's time to go home". Fast forward to July and the federal government has announced that the return of international students is no longer conditional upon state borders being open - and it appears that recent lockdowns in Melbourne and the border closure between Victoria and NSW will not affect the decision. This is a clear indication that the federal government has realised the full economic impact of the lack of international students coming into Australia since COVID-19 first hit the headlines.
There remains, however, the issue of how international students have been treated since the advent of the pandemic. Because most international student are on temporary visas, they were locked out of JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments and other government assistance. The federal government provided $7 million to the Red Cross, but left it to the state and territory governments to put together gradual solutions, resulting in limited assistance in terms of food and accommodation for most international students.
Many students found themselves in a position overnight where they could no longer afford to pay their rent on top of their studies. Parents overseas lost businesses, and the ability to send money to their children. Those with visas expiring soon were reluctant to pay for courses when they were not sure where their next meal was coming from. In our office, we set up a food bank to assist clients who were suddenly experiencing desperate times. Very few repatriation flights were organised, and those who had been here for some time already and had invested time and money in studies were reluctant to return home.
In the last week, however, numbers of students appearing at food banks have been decreasing, as students return to jobs in the hospitality sector and elsewhere. This decrease in numbers has shown that it is not charity that international students want, but recognition as integrated members of Australian society.
International education has been steadily growing over the last 20 years to become a powerhouse service export for Australia, creating up to $55 billion annually for the economy and more than 240,000 jobs. Not to mention the bilateral relations developed between Australia and the rest of the world thanks to our international student ambassadors, who return home and shine a light on this incredible country, promoting it for all it is worth.
The figures show that only one in seven students remain in Australia on completion of their studies here. International students create vibrant communities and bring diverse culture to our country. Take Catalina, from Colombia. She arrived in Australia to study a series of education courses worth $25,000 per year. Catalina lives in a suburb of the city where she is studying, and spends $100 per week on groceries and going out. She pays $250 per week in rent. Catalina goes on holiday four times a year, spending up to $200 per day. Her parents come to visit and spend $150 per day. This equates to outgoings of $52,700 per year. With her wages of $26,000 per year, this brings a net benefit to the economy of $26,700. Multiply this by the number of international students in Australia in 2019 (approximately 700,000) and we arrive at a net contribution of approximately $20 billion - beyond the contribution to the education sector. Further, this contribution is made at a micro level within the community, bringing much-needed funds to local small businesses on a broader and deeper scale than can be achieved by the traditional two-week tourist.
There has been talk of the government raising the living costs required to be demonstrated by international students. However, these costs are already high enough. A realistic model, taking into account a student's basic need to work to help finance themselves, is what is also required. Changing the limitations on work hours from 20 to 24 hours per week to allow students to occupy a part-time job would assist further. Finally, registration of education agents, who assist to place students in courses, through an industry-regulated model would assist to build further credibility in our sector and enhance the quality of our education frameworks, thus ensuring a better quality product for our overseas guests.
Every time Australia encounters economic instability, migrants get targeted - whether temporary or permanent residents. Right now, we have a chance to change our stance towards an important sector of our economy and to treat international students as an integral part of our community, part of the fabric of our diverse society, regardless of the fact that they are here on a temporary basis.
- Melanie Macfarlane is chief executive of MM Migration & Recruitment and secretary of the International Students Education Agents Association.