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The biggest crisis to hit international HE in Australia
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Support emerging for broke, stranded foreign students

More than 565,000 international students were undertaking courses in Australia’s universities and colleges when the coronavirus outbreak struck. Tens of thousands are now stranded with little or no financial support in the middle of what has become a pandemic.

While the federal government offers cash supplements to out-of-work Australian citizens and other residents, as well as providing them with help to find jobs, no income or other forms of assistance have been available to foreign students.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison even told students they should go home if they were unable to survive without calling on the state and federal governments for help.

Student plight worsens

But as the plight of international students has become more widely publicised and their calls for help have grown, Australian universities and state governments have started to act.

Among changes being made to help, students who have been in Australia for more than 12 months and who are facing financial hardship can access money in their Australian superannuation funds.

All workers in Australia are obliged to contribute a portion of their weekly incomes to a superannuation fund. This is intended to ensure that money will be available when they retire or are unable to work.

Under federal government changes, foreign students who have made superannuation contributions while working in the country can now withdraw up to AU$20,000 (US$13,000) from their superannuation fund.

The government also declared it would be ‘flexible’ in cases where the coronavirus has prevented students from meeting their visa conditions, including being unable to attend their classes.

Work hour relaxation

Under their visa conditions, foreign students are able to undertake paid work for up to 20 hours a week to earn an income to support themselves.

Because of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the government extended these hours for students working in aged care or as nurses to support the country’s healthcare sector. Those working in supermarkets also had their hours extended.

But from 1 May, the time students can spend in paid work has been cut back to the previous limit of 40 hours over each two-week period.

Free financial counselling

International students facing extreme financial stress can now obtain free advice from qualified professionals who are able to provide information, advice and advocacy.

Australia has a National Debt Helpline and foreign students struggling to pay their debts can obtain advice from trained financial counsellors who offer guidance specific to each student’s situation.

Meantime, increasing numbers of universities have also offered to provide independent emergency grants as well as access to ‘food banks’ to help students facing severe hardship.

According to the national organisation Universities Australia, tertiary institutions have already committed more than AU$110 million to assist students in need.

Nationwide support

Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said almost all states and territories, together with every Australian university, now offered support for international students.

“Many of these students now find themselves in extremely difficult circumstances due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 virus,” Jackson said.

“Unlike their Australian classmates, there will be those who won’t have family or local support networks to fall back on – which is why assistance from all levels of government, adding to that from our universities, is vital at this time of growing need.”

Jackson said university support initiatives included providing emergency grants, scholarships, accommodation, food and low-cost or free IT equipment.

She welcomed decisions by all the states and territories to offer support to international students “who, like their Australian peers, had lost their casual or part-time jobs as a result of the global pandemic”.

Working for Victoria

The Victorian state government, for instance, is working with universities to assist the more than 100,000 international students facing hardship after losing their part-time jobs.

Victoria joins the Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australian, Tasmanian and Western Australian governments in assisting international students who have lost their casual or part-time jobs.

Universities Australia welcomed the announcement by the government of Victoria to establish a AU$45 million support package for international students facing hardship due to COVID-19.

As part of the International Student Emergency Relief Fund, the state’s international students could be eligible for relief payments of up to AU$1,100, co-contributed by Victorian universities.

The government of Victoria is creating job opportunities for the students through a ‘Working for Victoria’ programme. This is intended to get people who have lost work because of the COVID-19 outbreak to get back into the workforce.

The state government is also offering free online training courses for those registered with the programme so they are ready for the call up to work.

Latest figures indicate that foreign students and their families contribute more than AU$20 billion (US$13 billion) to the national economy each year.

“International education is Australia’s fourth largest export,” Jackson said. “In Victoria [alone], universities contributed AU$7.5 billion in export income in 2018-19, supporting thousands of local jobs.”

South Australia

The government of South Australia has also announced a new AU$13.8 million fund to support international students in the state who are facing financial hardship because of the coronavirus.

Among the grants is a AU$10 million fund to help students impacted by virus restrictions at the state’s three universities; AU$500 emergency cash grant to other international students, currently enrolled in a course, living in South Australia and who meet the criteria; and a one-off AU$200 assistance payment per student living with South Australian families provided to homestay families.

Northern Territory

As part of its AU$50 million Small Business Survival Fund, the Northern Territory government has announced that it will be using a significant portion of this fund towards keeping people in work who may not be eligible for the federal government’s JobKeeper payment, such as some casuals, recently employed workers and temporary visa holders, including international students.

Australian Capital Territory

The Australian Capital Territory government’s ‘Jobs for Canberrans’ fund will provide work opportunities for people in the casual or semi-skilled workforce who have lost their jobs or who have been significantly impacted due to COVID-19. Highest priority will be given to people ineligible for any Australian government support funds and to those who have relied on casual work.

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