Tahmina Rashid

Australia risks losing billions in revenue, as well as its international reputation, if it continues to ignore the plight of 500,000 international students, Tahmina Rashid writes.

Governments in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and New Zealand offered support in sharp contrast to the Australian government when the COVID-19 crisis broke out. As the crisis escalated, Prime Minister Scott Morrison advised international students that “it’s time to go home”.

Not only did this advice lack empathy, but it was a poor political move. It garnered a negative response from international students, who continue to suffer – often in silence – relying on the goodwill of friends or living on food parcels from community groups and charity organisations.

Many students are skipping meals, and have no funds to buy a return ticket home when the borders reopen. These international students are at the brink of being homeless and feel that they have been abandoned by Australia, and question their place in Australian society.

International students are often living in social isolation, even before it became part of the policy response to the pandemic. This struggle for international students has received very little public policy attention, as it often assumes they will simply take care of themselves, and relies exclusively on their individual ability to independently cope in their new environment.

The significance of social relationships for personal and mental health and wellbeing is crucial, and this is especially true away from one’s home country.

Refugees, migrants and asylum seekers have been recognised as especially vulnerable in this area by health professionals, and are often allocated policy resources to deal with it, but international students as a group are seen temporary entrants with fewer entitlements. Some educational institutions offer insufficient support, effectively leaving them to manage on their own.

International students leave their social networks behind and must forge new relationships in a new environment, and this is not an easy task. It is even harder for those who study full-time and are working part-time to support themselves.

Although international students are supposed to have enough money to support themselves for a year, the reality is that most of them rely on part-time jobs in Australia. Many of these students are socially isolated and often have to rely on other members of their ethnic community to meet their basic social needs.

They are often less visible, working as kitchen hands in restaurants or cleaners in empty offices and shopping centres, their existence never apparent to policymakers until a criminal offence is committed against them or by them.

Due to worldwide travel restrictions, around two million temporary visa holders are stuck in Australia. Of course, these are not all students. 8000 skilled medical professionals on temporary visas have been encouraged to stay, as they provide essential services during the pandemic, and some of these are students.

International students looking after the elderly in the aged care sector and restocking supermarkets shelves have been told they are welcome to stay too, but others, who have lost jobs as cleaners or in the retail sector, have been advised to go home while the international borders are closed.

A coalition of 124 unions has asked the government to support international students with the support of the Greens, while the Labor party has advocated for a reduction in the number of overseas workers to secure economic opportunities for Australians, many of whom have lost jobs due to the economic downturn as a result of COVID-19 pandemic.

One study estimated that Australia may lose $22 billion from its GDP on the back of the crisis, and $25.8 billion in tax revenue. Australian universities and state governments have offered support to international students, but it may be too little too late to salvage Australian reputation in the international education market.

This came alongside previous damage caused by incidents of racism against East Asian community members as COVID-19 escalated. The Asian Australian Alliance has reported nearly 400 racist incidents since April this year.

Australia receives more tourists and international students from China than any other country, and the travel ban on Chinese students by the Australian government caused anger, with some saying that they felt treated like ‘cash cows’ as they had to travel via a third country before arriving in Australia.

Universities across Australia are already feeling the pinch. In March 2020, there were 626,052 international enrolments in Australian institutions, 370,269 of them in Higher Education. 27 per cent of these students are from China and another 17 per cent from India, followed by Nepal, Vietnam, and Brazil.

On top of this, Australia is leading a choir of countries demanding an inquiry into the origin of COVID-19 pandemic, subtly implying its origin in China. The effort has not gone unnoticed in Chinese policy development networks, and the Chinese Ambassador in Canberra has belligerently warned of the consequences.

China’s crippling 80 per cent tariff imposed on Australian barley for next five years, and its ban on beef imports, indicate that it could restrict its students as well as tourists from coming to Australia in the right circumstance, hurting the economy – especially in tourism and universities. China has already warned its students to reconsider studying in Australia at a time when Australian universities are facing $16 billion loss in revenue due to COVID-19.

The Australian Tourism Industry Council is lobbying for support from the federal government, and Tourism and Transport Forum Australia states that on average, Chinese visitors coming for educational purposes spend $7.1 billion in Australia.

While Australian farmers and the tourism sector enjoy some sympathy among Australian policymakers, there is little support for a similar bailout for universities, despite the fact that Australia’s chief scientist warned the government that the pandemic would severely impact the Australian research workforce into the long term, damaging innovation and economic growth.

In the current environment, the number of international students coming to Australia next year is set to decline. While experts are calling for reforms in the university sector, universities have been excluded from government bailouts, and this could have dire consequences.

While the government has announced it will allow currently enrolled international students to come back in July, and state and territory governments, like the ACT, are beginning pilot programs to bring international students to universities, the future of international enrolments is very uncertain. If Australian universities are to recover the estimated loss of $16 billion by 2023, policymakers must do something to help.

This blog post was originally posted on the Asia & The Pacific Policy Society website.

Dr Tahmina Rashid
Dr Tahmina Rashid is an Associate Professor of Global Studies, Faculty of Arts & Design, University of Canberra Australia.