Australia must do more to ensure everyone living in it can survive, let alone prosper, and international students are no exception, Marianne Dickie writes.
COVID-19 has affected every aspect of Australian society and every sector of the economy. Daily announcements by politicians have fuelled the news, as Australians wait breathlessly to see how they may be helped by fiscal announcements.
One portfolio has experienced significantly more changes or adaptions than others. It is not health, or education, but immigration. From the first announcement that flights from China would be cancelled, to the chaos surrounding the Ruby Princess, immigration has been at the forefront of the struggle to contain the virus. It is not surprising that most Australians probably feel the role of the Department of Home Affairs should be pivotal to Australia’s response.
The absence of Minister for Immigration David Coleman – who has taken personal leave from the portfolio – and Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, due to his month-long battle with COVID-19, has made constant changes seem even more unpredictable as migrants grapple with the personal implications for each announcement.
COVID-19 was first recorded in Australia on 19 January 2020. On 1 February, Australia imposed its first ban on a foreign country, preventing Chinese citizens from entering Australia and ordering Australian citizens returning from China to self-quarantine.
Then, in March, entry bans were imposed on Iran, South Korea, and Italy. On 18 March, the Governor-General issued a three month Human Biosecurity Emergency (Human Coronavirus with Pandemic Potential) Declaration 2020, moving much of the response from the responsibility of Home Affairs portfolio to the two departments responsible for biosecurity: the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture.
By 20 March, Australia had closed its borders to all non-residents and non-Australian citizens. All those who arrived in Australia from this date were required to self-isolate for 14 days.
By 25 March, three states had imposed self-isolation for travellers from within Australia. Then, on 29 March, the federal government announced that all travellers regardless of nationality or residency who returned from overseas would be quarantined in a hotel or facility for 14 days.
Some of the first temporary migrants to be affected by all of these measures were international students. The 1 February announcement that upgraded travel advice for China to level four left many students stranded overseas unable to return to their studies.
From 22 February, year 11 and 12 students seeking to travel to Australia from mainland China were able to seek an exemption on a case by case basis, provided they could meet health requirements. These exemptions continued to apply past the 20 March travel restrictions with the Department of Agriculture conducting health/biosecurity screenings of all students and guardians at the border.
Initially, the response from students and educational providers focused on their visa requirements. Those in already in Australia studying found their classes delayed until mid-March, risking violating visa requirements that students complete their courses within a specific time period.
On 13 March, Ministers Tudge and Tehan issued a joint press release announcing that international students currently employed at major supermarkets would now be allowed to work extra hours. This relaxation of working hours for specific sectors ends on 1 May, as many Australian citizens and permanent residents left unemployed by the crisis are now beginning to seek work.
By 19 March, all international travel was becoming increasingly fraught. Students wanting to return home were faced with increased costs and an unavailability of flights. Working restrictions were also lifted for student nurses and those working in aged care so they could become available to the health system. The next day, the government announced that international students who were in financial hardship could access their Australian superannuation.
Nevertheless, this option is only available to students who had held their visa for 12 months or longer. On the same day, the prime minister urged students who could not manage under these conditions to go home.
Increasing agitation surrounding the plight of temporary visa holders saw Prime Minister Scott Morrison remind Australia’s 565,000 international students on 3 April that they had committed to support themselves in their first year of study. If they found they could not do so, he encouraged them to lean on family for support, work part-time or access their superannuation.
The prime minister is correct, students do need to meet visa criteria, and that criteria does outline their ability to support themselves and any secondary visa holders such as their partner and children.
Student visas come with a complex array of requirements. Students must demonstrate that they have a genuine intention to study, they may need to prove they have the required English level to undertake the coursework, and, importantly, that they have enough funds to support themselves and their family.
However, the legislative instrument that outlines these requirements is currently set very low. The visa criteria require some (not all) students to prove that they, their parent, spouse or de facto partner had a personal annual income of at least $72,592 for the 12 months before their application. They may also need to prove they can afford the annual living cost of $21,041 for themselves and $7,362 for their partner with $3,152 for each additional child.
This is simply not enough. The unspoken expectation is that the majority of students, faced with the reality of the cost of living in Australia, will be forced into the temporary workforce while they study. However, until recently, international students enrolled in full-time study were only permitted to work 40 hours per fortnight by law.
The increase in general unemployment and the shutdown of many businesses traditionally employing students has resulted in the loss of work for the majority in this category. The resulting poverty they face with the loss of their income has revealed that the student visa program rests on a promise Australia cannot deliver.
The Australian economy has benefited from international students at the cost of a lie. The government has pitched the cost of living in Australia at such a low level that it tricks students into believing that they can survive paying international student fees, rent, and food in some of Australia’s most expensive destinations off the meagre income outlined in the legislation.
While Prime Minister Morrison may seek to lay the responsibility back onto international students and their families, he must instead accept that Australia failed to tell the truth about the product it is selling them.
If universities are to bounce back after this crisis, Australia needs a realistic portrayal of living costs and a requirement for students to have access to funds that meet these costs. This must be true throughout all of their years of study, regardless of whether they work part-time or not. Australia relying on poorly paid temporary work to fund its education sector makes a mockery of its values.