Unlimited work hours for international students ‘could damage’ Australian reputation

While The PIE previously reported that businesses in the country have welcomed the development, education stakeholders have warned that extending the number of hours full-time international students can work from 20 hours may adversely hamper the achievement of the main goal of international students — that is completing their courses satisfactorily.

Stakeholders are concerned that the move could have a multiplying effect on Australia’s universities’ pedigree and globally-acknowledged reputation, as a country offering some of the best university education in the world.

Phil Honeywood, CEO of the International Education Association of Australia highlighted in an Op-ed for The Australian that this sudden policy manoeuvre had not been preceded by a “consultation with the beleaguered international education sector”. It disregarded the “nation’s emphasis on world-class academic outcomes”, he said.

“Crucially, this change of policy may inflict lasting damage on our hard-won reputation as a quality-focused study destination,” warned Honeywood.

He acknowledged that allowing international students to work 20 hours a week had many sets of benefits for various stakeholders, but reminded that initially it was meant for “course-related employability” alone. That way students’ studies and the jobs they did were in-sync, and would help them secure future career pathways.

He said that in the midst of the manifold challenges brought on by the pandemic, “it is clear that corporate Australia has hit the panic button”.

Speaking to The PIE, Oscar Zi Shao Ong, national president of the Council of International Students Australia, said that there were “many layers” to the “very complex issue”.

The measure would help international students who need to work more hours in order to support themselves and help protect international students from “workplace exploitation” and “payment of lower wages”. It might also enhance the employability of international students, he added.

“Expectations need to be made clear to students”

Although CISA had been “calling for lifting of work hour restrictions” for international students for quite sometime and had held various “consultations with the government and other stakeholders”, there is a need for bringing in “support measures” and “checks and balances” to ensure that the students were kept on track with their studies, he said.

“We have not got [the issue] right just yet,” he said. “There needs to be a better system in place… [and] expectations need to be made clear to students.”

“We welcome in principle any opportunity for international students who wish to take advantage of relaxed visa rules and consequent working flexibility,” Universities Australia deputy chief executive Peter Chesworth told The PIE.

Given the challenges international students have faced during the pandemic, the ability for students to seek employment if they desire is ultimately a good thing.”

However, Chesworth stressed “the utmost importance of ensuring students aren’t being viewed as a readily expendable solution to fill labour shortages and are working under the same conditions and protections as domestic workers”.

“Though working is important for many, the reasons international students choose Australia in the first place goes beyond employment opportunities. Australia is a highly desirable study destination because of our world-renowned universities, lifestyle and reputation as a safe country,” he noted.

Universities Australia also “urged consistency”, with Chesworth highlighting the 130,000+ international students who “have been patiently waiting to return to Australia while our international borders remained closed for nearly two years”.

Head of Research at The Lygon Group Angela Lehmann said the news of “temporary removal of the 40 hours-a-fortnight restriction is being heavily discussed by international students online”.

“There is a mix of emotion and sentiment among international students about the change. Some students are excited about the changes and are viewing this as their opportunity to undertake full-time work,” she told The PIE.

“Others are more sceptical of the government’s motives behind this change. Some see it as a marketing tool to ‘lure’ prospective international students or a short-term measure to fill labour shortages with no long-term benefit for students.

“These students are recalling the prime minister’s call for international students and other temporary visa holders to ‘go home’ early in the pandemic.”

Working longer hours in front-line industries comes with a greater risk of exposure to Covid-19, Lehmann continued, adding that students are “curious what measures are in place to support their health and welfare” if they contract the disease.

Some students and graduates are referring to the changes as an opportunity for students to be exploited as they may not feel able to turn down shifts/hours,” she said.

Corporate Australia – as employers have previously told The PIE – has “every reason to be pleased with the federal government for moving quickly to provide it with a supplementary workforce through the employment of international students”, Honeywood continued.

However, post-Covid, it will be our nation’s international education sector, and the students it attempts to support, that will be left to deal with the consequences of this political quick fix,” he cautioned.

He also highlighted that national tertiary education regulators, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency and the Australian Skills Quality Authority would have an increasingly important role to play, as education standards may drop among many providers.

Lehmann suggested three areas that policy makers need to consider.

The relaxation of working hours is “likely to impact students differently”, with some finding it more feasible to come to Australia while others with choose to keep their working hours to a minimum.

The risk is that we may create a division between the international student body based on inequality and exploitation – a system that favours students from wealthier backgrounds and pushes others into low-paid labour at the expense of their academic success,” she cautioned.

The risk is that we may create a division between the international student body based on inequality and exploitation”

Secondly, it carries a risk that Australia will “be seen as advocating for international students to be placed in jobs that are high-risk and unsafe at the expense of building truly work-ready graduates”.

Finally, the pandemic has “really highlighted to Australia the essential role that temporary migrants play in our labour force and our economy”, she stated.

Australia’s international education sector has always been very cleverly and neatly entwined with its labour market needs…

However, we must ensure that we do not end up de-valuing the potential for international students to contribute to Australia’s long-term skilled workforce in the eyes of the Australian public by implementing policy that positions students as a ‘stand-by’ workforce for dangerous and low paid jobs,” she concluded.

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