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Having scored an own goal by telling international students to “go home” during the pandemic, Australia has doubled the damage with its work-based efforts to lure them back again, a Sydney forum has heard.
Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said competitor countries had been “rubbing their hands in glee” at Australia’s “clumsy and most unfortunate treatment” of overseas students after Covid struck. “Our then government told them to leave if they could not support themselves financially and medically during the many and long lockdowns,” Ms Thomson told the Australia China Business Council education symposium.
“Then the message the former government sent to those students, in an effort to reconnect, was: ‘Come back because we need you to work in our pubs and our clubs and our restaurants and our shops.’ Is that the best that we could actually do? All of us did our fair share working in pubs and clubs and retail as we studied, but it was a means to an end – it wasn’t the end game.”
Ms Thomson said that instead of targeting students to fill low-skill jobs, Australia should encourage more foreign graduates to stay after completing qualifications in areas such as information technology, engineering, agriculture, and the natural and physical sciences.
“Under the new government, we must urgently recalibrate how we communicate our messages to international students. They’re not a stopgap measure to fill low-wage vacancies. Nor are they just a source of institutional and national revenue. They are the world’s next generation of highly qualified professionals, for which there is an urgent skills shortage here and overseas.”
International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood said the new government must reverse its predecessor’s removal of the limit on foreign students’ working hours during semester time.
Mr Honeywood said the former immigration minister had once said foreigners “could only possibly work 20 hours a week…to be bona fide full-time students. Seven years later, the same minister…said you can work as many hours as you want.”
“Students from India and Nepal already face mental health pressure where Mum and Dad back [home] are saying: ‘Now, we know you can work 140 hours a week in the Australian economy. Send us back Australian dollars to look after the family while you study full time.’”
He said it would be wrong to characterise such outcomes as “unintended” consequences. “We could have told the government that this was going to be a genuine consequence.”
Oscar Ong, president of the Council of International Students Australia, said the removal of the working hours cap had been a “blessing in disguise” in some ways. He said unethical employers had used the limit as leverage to force foreign students into working on the cheap by threatening to report them for working excessive hours if they protested.
Mr Ong said 77 per cent of foreign students who worked were paid below the minimum wage. But he added that it was impractical for students to work 20 hours a week, let alone more, on top of a full-time study load. “If you’re here to work, get a work visa.”
Belinda Clarke, chief executive of Australia’s Restaurant and Catering Association, said the removal of the limit had relieved students from being forced to hold multiple jobs, and making themselves more vulnerable to abuse, to disguise the number of hours they were working.
“We want them to be paid properly as well,” she told the symposium.
Federal Labor politician Julian Hill, co-chair of the Parliamentary Friends of International Education, said students’ working hours should be “dialled back”. He highlighted Nepal’s emergence as the top source country of students. “They think we’re selling a work visa,” he said.
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Australia’s pitch to overseas students ‘clumsy’ – Times Higher Education