In 2010 I, along with other members of the Law Institute of Victoria Migration Law Committee, was active in the debate concerning rights for International Students. The following year the Knight Review was released in September. It contained 41 detailed recommendations which centered on streamlined processing of visas for applicants in the university sector and post-study work rights for university graduates. Since 2011 there have been several key changes to the overseas student program, largely focused on the university sector, as the Government has implemented the recommendations of the Knight Review.
Many of Australia’s 570,000 international students face losing their casual jobs due to restrictions put in place to tackle COVID-19, with many also unable to return to their home country due to travel restrictions. International students bring approximately $39 billion per year into the economy, making it Australia’s fourth-largest industry. Hence international students have until recently been looked upon by Governments as a “cash cow” that just keeps giving.
Now, in the shadow of this pandemic, the uncomfortable question that confronts the Australian Government is does it owe these people anything: a fiduciary duty or a helping hand?
As rightly pointed out by Phil Honeywood, the Chief Executive of the International Education Association of Australia and head of the Government task force, “Many of these students have got relationships, apartment leases and they’ve paid tuition fees, so they want to do this study or they’ll be withdrawing their enrollment from a university or other provider at great cost to that provider.” And “Any country that decides that international education is going to become a major industry … they need to be able to show that it’s a two-way street. That in difficult times there is an acknowledgement that these young people do need help on a case by case hardship basis.” Surely that is not only the decent thing but also the sensible position to take. For when the corona pandemic has run it course, the Australian government will want this “market”. So how we treat these young people will cast a long shadow.
Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson has also urged the government to extend it’s supports for Australian students to the hundreds of thousands of international students across the country, many of whom are taxpayers. “These students, like Australian students, have lost part-time work through no fault of their own,” she said. “We welcomed the decision to include Australian students in increased welfare payments and will seek the Government’s assistance in ensuring that our current international student cohort is given the support it requires.”
As it stands it looks unlikely that the Government will be moved to support international students, however Melbourne City Council will establish a financial hardship fund for international students, according to recent press release. “[The] City of Melbourne is the first government in Australia to pledge support for a hardship fund for international students and we have asked officers for urgent advice on what form that takes,” said councilor Nicholas Reece. Such a fund is in keeping with what Honeywood wrote- “Given the lack of any political appetite from the major parties to permit international students access to welfare programs currently available to Australian citizens, a National Hardship Fund appears to be our best way forward”.
So at the moment the answer is no – the Australian Government does not believe we owe the international students who make up the “cash cow” anything.
And that I fear is shortsighted and will come back to haunt us.
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