COVID-19: International students must not be abandoned

April 30, 2020
Image: Adapted from original by Luke Hayfield/Flickr

The Victorian government’s April 29 announcement of a one-off payment to international students is miserable. The $1100 students can now apply for means that they will not have to worry about rent and food for about a week.

This is not a serious effort to help international students, many of whom are now stranded without an income and with rising bills.

The international education market amounted to some $32.4 billion in 2017–18, up from $28.1 billion in 2016–17 and it has been rising ever since.

There are 150,000 international students in Victoria, 200,00 in New South Wales, 25,000 in Queensland and 50,000 in West Australia. The latter three states have yet to offer anything to this sector.

In Sydney, the crisis facing international students has been shown up by the mountains of mattresses and furniture piled up on footpaths outside student accommodation. Many out-of-work international students have had to move wherever they can. They cannot return to their home countries because of travel restrictions.

International students make up a large section of Australia’s migrant workforce. They survive with precarious jobs, such as working in restaurants, convenience stores and food delivery. Many of these workplaces shut down when the COVID-19 lockdown began.

International students, like migrant workers and refugees, are unable to access the federal government’s COVID-19 stimulus packages.

This means that many need to find work regardless of how safe or essential it is. This gives employers a weapon to undermine union and workers’ campaigns for safe workplaces, including physical distancing and providing staff with adequate personal protection equipment.

In addition to these concerns, international students are on visas that require they study full-time. With universities shifting courses online and not offering the same units, these students also face the prospect of their visas being cancelled.

The National Union of Students has called on the federal government to allow students to study on a part-time basis and to extend subclass 500 student visas by 12 months.

Decades of racist policies from both Coalition and Labor governments has fuelled the idea that COVID-19 is a “Chinese” or “Asian virus”. International students have reported a rise in abuse. Two students were physically assaulted in Melbourne’s central business district on April 15 by people shouting racist slurs.

The government’s lack of support for international students is harsh and immoral. It is likely to have an impact on the economy. Universities are calculating that they will lose billions in expected revenue this year, with enrolments well down. This comes on top of decades of federal cuts to higher education.

Neither the federal government’s university support package or its COVID-19 stimulus packages have included assistance for international students. This needs to change: more than 425,000 people cannot be treated as cash cows in the good times and abandoned in the bad.

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