The Pandemic Has Exposed Australia’s Mistreatment of International Students

After years of being exploited by universities and employers, Australia’s international students are now locked out of the country with no plan for their return. It’s time to end the multibillion-dollar rip-off and build a public education system that works for all students.

The Chemistry building at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. (Flickr)

It’s been an especially grim few weeks for international students enrolled in Australian universities, even by the standards of our time. Those stranded abroad have already been stuck in limbo for months. Now, education minister Alan Tudge has extended their wait indefinitely by refusing to set out a timetable for them to return.

For too long, Australian universities and politicians have treated international students in a cavalier and mercenary fashion. University heads are only paying attention to their plight now because a precipitous drop in the number of people studying in Australia will have drastic implications for the whole structure.

As one university association head put it: “the holes in this imperfect system have turned into chasms.”

Propping up the System

Funding for Australian universities has either stagnated or dropped outright over the past ten years. International student fees, which are deregulated and phenomenally high, were the sector’s chosen remedy.

The decade leading up to 2019 was extremely lucrative, with more than half a million international students based in Australia, and revenue streams from their fees almost tripling from AUD$3.4 billion to $9.8 billion.

In 2019 alone, international students contributed $37.6 billion to the Australian economy, directly and indirectly. Countless companies big and small rushed to profit from this bonanza. The more “respectable” businesses cashing in on international students include large commercial housing providers and construction companies involved in university capital works.

Since international students are barred from accessing Medicare, private health care funds also get their slice of the pie. On the shadier side of things, dodgy education brokers and fake foundation course providers have been able to make a killing.

Legal restrictions on working hours and the high cost of living mean that international students are forced into exploitative under-the-table work. Multibillion-dollar retailer 7-Eleven is one high-profile example: the company was forced to pay back $173 million in unpaid and underpaid wages that had been stolen from student workers.

Countless smaller businesses have benefited as well, including restaurants, cafes, and labor hire contractors. Right across the board, Australian businesses have used the legally enshrined second-class status of international students to attack wages and conditions.

International students also provide a massive subsidy to big corporations in other, more hidden ways. Pharmaceutical companies rely heavily on universities to carry out applied research. International students account for more than a third of PhD researchers, and thanks to government funding cuts, it’s their fees that effectively enable this public research to continue, funding scientific breakthroughs that are then handed over gratis to profit-making companies, whose owners can laugh all the way to the bank.

Predictably, this all comes with a major human cost. The extreme financial pressures to which international students are subjected, combined with the threat of summary deportation for breaking discriminatory labor laws, have fueled a mental illness epidemic. The Victorian Coroners Prevention Unit discovered at least forty-seven international student suicides in that state alone during the 2009–2019 “boom” years — and that was pre-pandemic.

Violent attacks and racial abuse of international students have become more frequent since the country closed its borders. The authorities ignored warnings about the disastrous consequences of barring international students from Medicare. Since the pandemic began, at least three women studying in Australia have been murdered in acts of domestic violence.

End of an Era?

Last year, the pandemic brought a halt to most new international student arrivals and stranded many thousands overseas. While the overall number of international students had only dropped by 13 percent by October 2020, that was because existing students were still completing their courses online. With no replenishment of “stock,” modeling shows that universities stand to lose between $16 billion and $19 billion by 2023.

Universities have responded brutally: By September 2020, they had fired 10 percent of their workforce. Administrations forced many of their remaining staff to facilitate their own dispensability by requiring them to record lectures and class instructions and to develop reusable online content.

At first, Universities Australia (UA), the body representing the sector, tried appealing to the political class by stressing the need for healthy surpluses, but saw its pleas fall on deaf ears. UA has now shifted to arguing that international students are a crucial part of Australian soft power in the Asia-Pacific region.

“We educate leaders who go back to their countries right through the region and they have a fondness for Australia,” argued Deborah Terry, the UA chair. The body’s deputy chief executive plaintively echoed her point: “They make an enormous contribution to Australia’s influence in the world.”

Meanwhile, other economic sectors will also be sweating at the thought of losing almost $23 billion — the estimated boon that international students bring to the wider economy in the form of goods and services.

“Go Home”

None of that could deter Scott Morrison from addressing a notoriously blunt message to international students in April 2020, telling them to “go home.” The prime minister went on to offer a “temporary relaxation” of the rules restricting working hours for student-visa holders.

That concession was much less generous than the headlines made it sound. In reality, Morrison’s move was self-serving and geared to the needs of business. It only applied to students who were willing to work in aged care or produce picking — two highly profitable and poorly paid industries that were at risk of financial failure due to the pandemic.

So far, appeals to profit and patriotism from business interests haven’t caused the federal government to change its position. Australian business seems to have been partially mollified by the multibillion-dollar subsidies they’ve received, along with the promise of pandemic-inspired “reform” to industrial relations legislation and tax regulations, which might compensate them for the short-term pain.

But their patience seems to be wearing thin, and pressure must be growing on Morrison to give way. This week, he contradicted Health Department officials who had ruled out the resumption of international travel until 2022. Morrison insisted that the closure of international borders would be reviewed on a “week-by-week” basis.

There’s clearly a divide opening up among Australia’s political and economic elites over this issue. The labor and student movements should take advantage of that disunity to push for an end to the hyper-exploitation of international students.

They can do so as part of a broader push: against racism and precarious work, and in defense of a higher education system that relies on public funding through progressive taxation — the only model for universities that works for students, academics, and the common good.