27 April 2020

Have international students and workers fallen through the cracks of COVID-19 support?

| David Smith MP and Brendon Forde
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Member for Bean David Smith says that international students and visa holders may fall through the COVID-19 cracks. Photo: George Tsotsos.

The scale and scope of the COVID-19 crisis has left no one and no community untouched. We’ve seen a range of responses from governments, offering financial support to prevent people from falling into poverty from lost jobs or incomes.

On the whole, these responses have been appropriate and timely. The operation of the National Cabinet has allowed us a glimpse of a more cooperative federalism. Undoubtedly, jobs and livelihoods have been saved, ensuring that the damage from the COVID-19 crisis will be less than it would have been otherwise.

But certain sections of the economy and society have fallen through the cracks of the federal government’s strategy. Among those particularly affected are Australia’s temporary residents.

Australia is now home to the second-largest temporary migrant workforce in the world, behind the United States. There are 2.17 million people here on temporary visas, jumping from 1.8 million people over the last 4 years. Many are working and studying.

These people find themselves in a particularly precarious position as a group, at risk of damaging social and economic exclusion. With no pathway to economic or social support, these students and workers are being left behind.

Brendan Forde is an ACT Labor candidate for Brindabella. Photo: Supplied.

The situation of international students is particularly difficult. They constitute an important component of our economy. International education is the third-largest export industry in Australia.

In the 2018-2019 financial year, international education was worth $37.6 billion to the Australian economy. In the ACT, international education services are worth more than $1 billion a year, a figure that has doubled since 2013. The ambitious plans for the University of New South Wales campus in Reid rely heavily on attracting more international students.

On top of this, many jobs are directly dependent on this industry. Our universities have also benefited immensely from international education, enabling them to offer greater services and invest in a greater capacity to offer quality education. It has provided critical support to the research capabilities of our tertiary institutions.

Behind these numbers, we have the experiences of students who have chosen to study in Australia, not only for the quality of our education but also because of our reputation as a safe and secure democratic country. After studying at great expense, in some cases off the back of their whole community, they usually return home armed with an Australian education and exposure to the better part of our values.

But even before the beginning of this current crisis, many issues had arisen in international education. Among these was the failure to properly include international students in campus life, giving them a rich and full experience of university education.

In February this year, Andrew Giles MP warned against the “creeping normalisation of hate and racism in Australia”.

Yet we’ve found that these students have been particularly impacted by the gaps in the Federal Government response. The Prime Minister has advised: “If you are a visitor in this country, it is time … to make your way home”.

Yet this recommendation cannot be acted upon by many visa holders, including international students. The national borders are closed, or flights are simply unavailable. Where flights are available, they are prohibitively expensive. This situation effectively leaves students stranded here, relying heavily on local multicultural communities.

Added to this, an inability to find work leaves them in a precarious situation. State and Territory Governments are making some attempts to fill the gap. The ACT Government’s $20 million jobs plan gives priority to those in need who are ineligible for existing Federal Government support.

Ultimately, these students and workers have been entrusted to our collective care. We cannot respond to their concerns by asking them to leave and then expect that they will return once this crisis is over. This course of action endangers a critical part of our economy and the viability of our higher education sector. At stake is our sense of compassion and responsibility.

To protect our economy and look after these vulnerable students, we cannot be parsimonious with our generosity. And we need to revisit our reliance on a workforce that comes with diminished rights and protections. After all, we’re all in this together.

David Smith is the ALP Federal Member for Bean and Brendan Forde is an ACT Labor candidate for Brindabella.

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No, it’s not our responsibility to take care of them.

If flights are unaffordable, just like the Australian government has done for our citizens, foreign governments need to step up to get their own citizens home from Australia.

This is truly a time for Australia to think of its own citizens first.

Stephen Saunders7:15 am 28 Apr 20

Ambassador Cheng is openly threatening to take his students elsewhere, unless Australia toes the CCP line. I don’t suppose there’s any way we could take him up on his offer?

HiddenDragon8:29 pm 27 Apr 20

“Ultimately, these students and workers have been entrusted to our collective care. We cannot respond to their concerns by asking them to leave and then expect that they will return once this crisis is over.”

Chances are that many of them won’t be returning, even if miraculous medical breakthroughs produce a vaccine and effective treatments (not involving the injection of Dettol) in the next year or two.

We shouldn’t abandon these people, but nor should we pretend that things are going to revert to the old normal. Targeted assistance (for food, accommodation, return travel, including negotiations with their home countries) for the affected individuals would be fair and sensible – and no less than you might expect from a government led by a PM who presumably believes in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The post-virus crisis Australia will almost certainly need to involve greater taxpayer contribution towards the cost of tertiary education for Australian students, particularly in priority skills areas. The old levels of reliance on foreign student fees were looking unsustainable before the crisis.

It should be the foreign governments assisting their own citizens with urgent welfare or mercy flights as the onus has always been on the foreign governments to assist their own citizens. This is being done by Australia by providing mercy flights for Australian citizens overseas and by other foreign governments that have citizens in foreign countries at this time, providing mercy flights and repatriation assistance. It’s all too easy for countries, like New Zealand, for example to pass the buck and not want take responsibility for their own citizens overseas.

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