International students plead for help

May 6, 2020
International students who have brought at lot to Australia are now being told to fend for themselves.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic it has been incredibly difficult for international students to survive. We have lost income, due to the shutdown, and are not receiving any government support for our rent, utilities and fee bills.

The student experience we were promised is nowhere near the reality. While classes have moved online, there have been no commensurate fee reductions or reprieves.

We are only allowed to work 40 hours a fortnight, and now that our jobs and income have been taken away, we are in dire straits. Unlike New Zealand or Britain, where international students have been offered government support, here we are yet to receive anything.

It was gut wrenching to hear Prime Minister Scott Morrison tell us to go back home, given the contribution that international students make to the society and the economy.

The most significant and immediate challenge for us is to make ends meet.

We earn nowhere close to the median income; the hours we used to work only just paid for rent and the cost of living. Without that income due to the COVID-19 shutdown, we have no chance of earning enough to survive.

We are not eligible to receive any of the Centrelink payments to help the vulnerable. I have had to ask charities for groceries and borrow against my credit card to pay everyday bills. I have even had to set up a GoFundMe fundraiser.

This is also taking a huge toll on our mental health. Most international students are alone here, with no family, and are vulnerable emotionally and psychologically. Those of us with Asian backgrounds have been subjected to relentless racist taunts and abuse.

The universities and state and federal governments should help us in two ways: give more financial support and show some empathy. It should not be incumbent on private charitable organisations to step in to fill this vacuum, especially as international students contribute tens of billions of dollars to the Australian economy and have not received a single dollar in special COVID-19 assistance.

A supposedly egalitarian society, such as Australia’s, should expect that universities and governments support international students in line with assistance being received by citizens and permanent residents. We deserve to be treated equally.

Why should an international student receive significantly less in support payments than a resident does when, on average, the difference in the fees we pay compared to domestic students is often higher than what an average Australian pays in income tax?

The Victorian government has offered a one-off payment of $1100 but this is not enough.

Yet international postgraduate students are not eligible for Myki public transport concessions and the difference between a 1 year Myki pass, with and without concession, is more than $1100.

It is as if the state government is now offering postgraduates a concession for public transport, but is calling it a “COVID-19 support payment for international students”.

State and federal governments as well as universities have billions of dollars in resources. It would not be difficult to set up a payment system, similar to Centrelink, that supports regular payments to international students during the pandemic. This would be a chance for them to show they care for the most vulnerable.

[Adrian M is an international student at Deakin University in Melbourne.]

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