Country briefing: Australia rallies to provide additional supports for international students

The emergence of the COVID-19 outbreak in January coincided with Lunar New Year celebrations in China as well as the mid-term break for Australian universities. As a result, a very large proportion – well over 100,000 by some estimates – of the Chinese students studying in Australia had returned home during the break from their studies and were unable to return to Australia as travel restrictions and other public health measures were quickly introduced in late January and early February.

“Almost two-thirds of Australian universities’ Chinese students are currently abroad,” Times Higher Education reported at the time, “an indication of the scale of the financial hit confronting the sector if the coronavirus crisis persists.”

The impact was quickly and sharply felt across all education sectors. In the ELICOS (English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students) sector, for example, with schools closed for in-person instruction and most shifting to online provision, many students had left the country amid mounting border closures and travel restrictions. And with Australia’s borders still closed to foreign travellers, any new students who had planned to attend this quarter are unable to travel.

“The ELICOS sector in Australia has been decimated by COVID-19, says English Australia CEO Brett Blacker. “We’ve seen once thriving colleges close and new enrolments virtually cease. But we have also seen the incredible adaptability of Australia’s ELICOS sector. The sector has moved to online learning so quickly, doing what would normally take many months in a matter of weeks. But with no new students in the foreseeable future, how will our sector survive? Online is the only answer, but our sector needs support to establish this and continue to deliver quality programmes that enrich the lives of students who want to learn English.”

The scale of that impact is growing further still as the pandemic continues through the first half of 2020 and stretches toward the start of the next academic term in Australian higher education in July. “It is clear that there will be a significant decline in second semester international student enrolments due to the virus, says Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson. The peak body is projecting potential revenue shortfalls for Australian higher education of AUS$3 billion to $AUS4.6 billion this year and up to 21,000 university jobs at risk.

As in all other major study destinations, the situation in Australia remains very fluid and is changing quickly. Here is a review of some of the key developments to date.

Strong support for international students

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made international headlines recently, when he suggested that, for those foreign students in Australia who are no longer able to support themselves because of the pandemic, “there is the alternative for them to be able to return to their home countries.”

This sentiment was reflected in emergency relief measures introduced earlier this month with a specific focus on domestic students.

However, in the intervening days, international students throughout Australia have also seen news of a wide variety of relief efforts and emergency funding designed to support students that have lost their jobs as businesses have shuttered or those who need housing, counselling, or other supports during the crisis. These initiatives are being announced by state, territory, and local governments, often in cooperation with host institutions, in an effort to provide targeted support for visiting students.

Individual institutions have also laid plans for substantial relief fundsfor foreign students. An AUS$25 million fund from Deakin University is one such example, and it makes up a substantial component of an estimated AUS$110 million in such institution-contributed funds. “Our additional hardship support will prevent students from falling through the cracks during the difficult months ahead,” said Deakin’s Vice Chancellor Iain Martin. “We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our international students.”

To take just one other example, the University of Melbourne has established an Emergency Support Fund for domestic and international students in need, and with payments of up to AUS$7,500 per student.

At the same time, city governments – including those in Melbourne, Sydney, and Perth – have taken steps to establish or contribute to relief funds and to bolster local supports for foreign students in need.

Sector leaders have also been quick to set a different tone from the national government on the question of these vital supports. “We need to have a better conversation with the wider community about the incredible benefits international education is providing now, financially, and also into the future as well,” said International Education Association of Australia Chief Executive Phil Honeywood. Speaking to SBS News, he added, “Any country that decides that international education is going to become a major industry … they need to be able to show that it’s a two-way street. That in difficult times there is an acknowledgement that these young people do need help on a case by case hardship basis.”

Mr Honeywood’s IEAA, along with English Australia and other peak education bodies, continues to call for a national hardship fund for international students, arguing that such a move would have an important impact on “Australia’s reputation in our key student source countries.”

Access to superannuation

On 4 April, Acting Minister for Immigration Alan Tudge announced that foreign students who have been in Australia for at least 12 months would be able to access their Australian superannuation, a pension fund contributed to by employees and employers alike as part of normal payroll processing.

Easing the cap on working hours

The significance of these relief efforts is underscored by the fact that many foreign students in Australia support themselves during their studies by working up to a cap of 40 hours per fortnight. Most often these positions are in the service and retail sectors, both of which have been badly disrupted with most businesses shuttered during the pandemic.

In separate announcements, Australia’s Department of Home Affairs has indicated that international students working in nursing and aged care, as well as those working in supermarkets, have had their 40-hour-per-fortnight cap eased until 1 May.

Travelling to Australia

Travel restrictions remain in place. Only those with a “a compassionate or compelling reason to travel to Australia” may enter the country, and those that do receive a special exemption to do so must then undertake a 14-day quarantine at a designated facility.

Exemption process for Years 11 and 12

On 22 February, the Australian government announced an additional exemption to allow Year 11 and 12 school students from China to apply for entry into Australia to complete their school education.

This exemption remains in place but immigration officials caution that, “Students and any accompanying holders of guardian visas should not begin travel to Australia (including booking travel) until they have confirmation of an exemption being granted by the Australian Border Force Commissioner that states they have authority to travel.”

Immigration guidance and visa processing

The Australian government is prioritising visa applications associated with travel exemptions and urgent travel currently, and normal visa services have been disrupted, including applications for an Electronic Travel Authority.

The guidance from immigration officials at the moment is that, “Students overseas should reconsider their need to apply for a student visa at this time, unless they are exempt from the travel restrictions. Those students with valid study visas who are unable to return to Australia to continue their studies may have their study deferred. This will not affect their visa status.”

With respect to online provision, the Department of Home Affairs advises: “You do not need a visa if you are overseas and studying online with an Australian education provider.

Education providers can issue a new Confirmation of Enrolment (CoE) and enrol students to study online.”