Will new international student work rights hurt Australia’s reputation?

The Australian government recently announced the temporary relaxation of the existing 40-hour per fortnight cap for student visa holders working in the hospitality and tourism sector. This builds on previous policy changes the federal government has made in response to COVID-19, allowing international students with jobs in critical sectors such as agriculture, health and aged care to work more than the capped hours.

In the short term, this may be beneficial to both international students who have lost jobs due to the impact of COVID-19 and hospitality and tourism industry businesses that are re-opening after extended closures. However, the decision also demonstrates a short-sighted approach to Australia’s largest service exports by positioning international students as disposable solutions to Australian labour market gaps.

The instrumental use of international students to fill gaps in Australia’s workforce may, in the long run, cause detriment to Brand Australia. Students who have felt largely ignored by the government during the pandemic may feel they are only valued or supported when a domestic problem needs fixing, after which this will be rescinded.

This may demonstrate to international students that their personal circumstances are not at the heart of such policy decisions. Using international students as a quick fix to ‘fill the gap’ in Australia’s workforce shortage runs the risk of undervaluing international students and may lead to student visas being seen as low-skill work visas in disguise.

A temporary fix

At the peak of the COVID-19 lockdowns, international students were seeking leniency around the removal of limited working rights to support themselves and to care for their own welfare.

Leniency was granted in sectors where it benefitted Australia during the height of the pandemic and was swiftly removed when it no longer benefited the economy. For example, international students' work restrictions were temporarily lifted to help restock shelves at supermarkets due to panic buying, with restrictions reinstated once this was no longer considered a gap that needed filling.

International students are, by and large, willing to step up and support the Australian community and economy. Our research during the pandemic has shown that international students very much see themselves – and want to be seen – as part of the local community.

For many of these students, temporarily lifting working hour restrictions in low-skilled industries demonstrates that the Australian government does not view international students as welcomed members of our communities, but rather as outsiders who can be used as a temporary fix for an immediate domestic problem.

Students struggling to pay their rent and afford food and bills at a time when their families back home may also be in more difficult financial situations than expected, may find it difficult to refuse increased working hours in low-skilled, low-paid casual jobs. The cost will be to their studies and to their ability to gain work experience in industries closely aligned with their career ambitions.

A new underclass?

The potential result of this policy change is a new underclass of international students struggling to achieve the results they had hoped for while they work long hours for minimum wage in restaurants and bars just to get by.

The perception of international students as a source of low-skilled labour may normalise the exploitation of these students. The presence of this underclass poses further risk to institutions as they work to ensure their students graduate with quality degrees ready for the skilled workplace.

An alternative message would be that international students are valued in the long-term growth of the country. This is the approach Australia’s competitor nations are taking.

In Canada, for example, Minister for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino recently told international students: “Your status may be temporary, but your contributions are lasting – and we want you to stay”, and offered permanent residency to more than 90,000 essential workers and international graduates in recognition of the value and contributions of their efforts in supporting the community during the pandemic.

In comparison, Australia’s short-term ‘fill the gap’ approach to international students, using them to address job shortages, gives a message that international students are valued only as a quick temporary fix to an Australian problem. This approach undermines the value and contribution of international students to the community and could contribute to a rift in their sense of welcome in Australia.

Now more than ever there is a strong need for government messaging to be mindful of the consequences of sidelining the value of international students' contributions to society.

Changes in policy settings need to be aware of potential long-term impacts on the reputation of Australia as a destination, where international students and their families can trust that students are welcomed, supported and facilitated to build a foundation for their future career success.

Varsha Balakrishnan is an education analyst at the Lygon Group, Australia.