It’s on and off again for foreign students wanting to work

Before and after Australian borders were closed during the pandemic, it was common to see young Indian and Nepali women working in cafés and as cashiers in shopping malls. Young Indian men dominated home delivery systems and were common sights stocking shelves and cleaning supermarkets in Sydney. They were foreign students who were allowed to work limited hours per week.

After some 30 years of resisting pressure from various employer bodies to remove the 40-hour per fortnight cap on the number of hours student visa holders could work while their course was in session, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke rolled over to pressure from the hospitality, tourism and other industries in May 2021 and announced that overseas students in Australia could work unlimited hours in the hospitality and tourism industry that was facing a serious shortage of labour.

Bowing to criticism that the move was intended to solve a labour crisis and would dent education quality, that decision was subsequently qualified by another announcement in September 2022: unrestricted work rights for student visa holders will end on 30 June next year.

In a statement on its website, the Department of Home Affairs said the reimposition of the cap was aimed at ensuring that students “focus on obtaining a quality Australian education and qualification”.

Until then, it is likely that the international students will continue to take advantage of their ability to legally work unlimited hours.

When restrictions were lifted in May 2021, the country saw a palpable spike in student visa applications from South Asia after Australia opened its borders in November 2021.

By April this year, Nepal had become the biggest source of foreign students to Australia, with student visa applications from that country hovering above the 4,500 mark in March and April, while those from India and China were close to about 3,000 per month.

Before the pandemic, India and China had provided the largest foreign student market for Australia. Given the huge middle-class populations of China and India, how did Nepal overtake them to become Australia’s largest source of foreign students?

Vocational education and training

According to Australian government statistics, there has been a large increase in vocational education and training (VET) sector offshore student applications from Nepal this year.

Since Australia’s borders re-opened, there have been more VET sector offshore student applications from Nepalese nationals than from India, China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka put together. Chinese and Indian applicants continue to prefer a university education.

The VET sector has traditionally recruited its students from those who are already in Australia, often poached from among university students who, after a year or two of undergraduate studies, feel they need a change in career focus.

Australian immigration authorities have traditionally subjected offshore VET applicants to a high degree of scrutiny and hence there has been a high refusal rate. The approval rate for Nepalese offshore primary VET sector student applicants has, since November 2021, averaged well over 80%.

This worries Dr Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Immigration. He argued in a commentary published by Independent Australia in May this year that Australia’s student visa is now essentially an “unsponsored work visa rather than one focused on study”.

This view is shared by a Sydney-based Nepali immigration agent (who did not want to be named) who told University World News that Nepali parents are ever willing to fork out the money – even if they have to borrow it – to get a student visa to send their child for education to Australia, because they know they can recoup that money quickly.

“Once in Australia the student could self-finance the studies by working and in the long term they can even earn the family an income by working after graduation,” he said. “If the child wants to go to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand or India for studies, parents are unlikely to fork out the money for it.”

Post-graduation work rights for degree-holders

Last month, at the conclusion of the Jobs and Skills Summit, Australia’s Minister for Education Jason Clare announced that post-graduation work rights for international students will be increased by two years from next year.

Thus, bachelor degree graduates can stay on and work in Australia for four years and masters degree graduates for five. It is believed that nursing, engineering and IT students will be top priority areas.

In an interview with the government-owned network SBS, a spokesperson for the home affairs minister said: “They’re the graduates that the government believes Australia needs, and they can go straight into a sector where there is a shortage of high-skilled workers”. He said that “Australia needs to better use the amazing resource of international students”.

“The overwhelming majority of ‘students’ from India and Nepal come to Australia for work rights and permanent residency, not for education,” argued Leith van Onselen, chief economist and co-founder of MacroBusiness.

He said the government’s overseas student policy is geared towards expanding student numbers, not improving quality. “All of which proves, yet again, that ‘international education’ is really a people-importing immigration industry rather than a genuine education export industry,” Van Onselen said.

Placement consultant and South Asian community leader Ash Gholkar argued that the problem lies with frequent changes by the authorities.

“Students are not happy because the rules and points keep changing. There’s too much uncertainty. Students should get to be assessed on the points requirements prevalent at the time they enter Australia to begin their programme,” he argued. “Else, in many cases, students take up a course on a demand list only to find, after the course is completed and they’ve had sufficient experience, that the demand list and points have changed.”

Gholkar told University World News that Australia is attractive to Indian students because of its high standard of living and its Commonwealth heritage that makes adapting and living familiar and easier. “Indian students get the benefit of a world-class education and a chance to apply for skilled migration,” he added.

Solving a skills crisis

Dr Belle Lim, a past national president of the Council of International Students Australia, argues that international students are a ready-made solution to solving Australia’s skills crisis. There are over 470,000 international students in Australia who possess local qualifications, with the most popular fields being commerce and management, IT, engineering and health sciences.

With young Australian-born people changing jobs regularly, “taking into account the loyalty that international graduates have towards their employers (ironically due to a smaller set of options), hiring them is less risky”, she noted in a recent column for Women’s Agenda.

Exactly for that reason, Sri Lankan-born Australian occupational health specialist Mahinda Seneviratne is concerned that students could be exploited as cheap migrant labour. He chairs the scientific committee of the International Commission on Occupational Health, and with colleagues in the Indo-Pacific region, he is involved in research on workplace safety for migrant labour.

“Various short-term work visa programmes and ‘students’ coming in as low-wage workers have been the backbone of many small businesses [in Australia] in recent years, particularly in hospitality and service industries,” he told University World News.

“Their precarious situation as casual, informal workers undermines working conditions, including their health and safety at work,” warned Seneviratne.