Australia’s presentation to overseas students is ‘clumsy’

After scoring an own goal by telling international students to ‘go home’ during the pandemic, Australia has doubled the damage with its work-based efforts to lure them back, a Sydney forum has heard.

Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said competing countries had ‘rubbed their hands in joy’ over Australia’s ‘awkward and most unfortunate treatment’ of overseas students following the Covid strike . “Our government at the time told them to leave if they couldn’t support themselves financially and medically during the many long lockdowns,” Ms Thomson told the Australia China Business Council’s education symposium. .

“Then the message the former government sent to these students, in an effort to reconnect, was, ‘Come back because we need you to work in our pubs and our clubs and our restaurants and our shops. Is this really the best we can do? We all did our fair share working in pubs, clubs and retail while we were in school, but it was a means to an end – it wasn’t the end game.”

Ms Thomson said that instead of targeting students for low-skilled jobs, Australia should encourage more overseas graduates to stay after gaining their qualifications in areas such as information technology, engineering , agriculture and the natural and physical sciences.

“Under the new government, we urgently need to recalibrate the way we communicate our messages to international students. This is not a stopgap measure to fill low-wage vacancies. Nor are they just a source of institutional and national revenue. They are the next global generation of highly skilled professionals, for whom there is an urgent skills shortage at home and abroad.

The chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, Phil Honeywood, said the new government must reverse his predecessor’s scrapping of the limit on overseas students’ working hours during the semester.

Mr Honeywood said the former immigration minister once said that foreigners “can only work 20 hours a week… to be bona fide full-time students. Seven years later, the same minister…said you could work as many hours as you wanted.

“Indian and Nepali students are already facing mental health issues where mom and dad come back [home] say, “Now we know you can work 140 hours a week in the Australian economy. Send us Australian dollars back to take care of the family while you study full time.

He said it would be wrong to label such results as “unintended” consequences. “We could have told the government that this was going to be a real consequence.”

Oscar Ong, president of the Council of International Students Australia, said the removal of the cap on working hours had been a “blessing in disguise” in some ways. He said unethical employers had used the limit as leverage to force international students to work on the cheap by threatening to report them for excessive working hours if they protested.

Mr Ong said 77% of foreign students who worked were paid below minimum wage. But he added that it was impractical for students to work 20 hours a week, let alone more, on top of a full-time study load. “If you are here to work, get a work visa.”

Belinda Clarke, chief executive of Australia’s Restaurant and Catering Association, said removing the limit had relieved students of having to work multiple jobs and made themselves more vulnerable to abuse, to hide the number of hours that they were working.

“We want them to be paid properly as well,” she told the symposium.

Federal Labor politician Julian Hill, co-chair of Parliamentary Friends of International Education, said student working hours should be ‘reduced’. He highlighted the emergence of Nepal as a top source country for students. “They think we’re selling a work visa,” he said.

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