Canberra drops ball on review of foreign students’ working hours

Commentators warn that history could repeat itself as uncapped work rights linger for at least a semester

April 21, 2022
Unfair chief giving assistant a lot of work
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Australia’s government has failed to fulfil a pledge to review employment rules for international students, who now have unfettered working rights until at least June.

In January, the government announced that it was “temporarily” removing the limit on student visa holders’ working hours “due to current workforce shortages”. Normally, overseas students are barred from working more than 40 hours a fortnight during term time.

The rule’s removal was to be reviewed in April. But the review did not take place before the long-anticipated calling of an election placed the government in a “caretaker period”, during which policy decisions – such as changes to the rules governing international students – are normally avoided.

“As such, this temporary measure will be reviewed following the outcome of the federal election…on 21 May,” a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said. “In the meantime, student visa holders can continue…with unlimited work rights.”

While some international education figures welcome the arrangement as an enrolment incentive, commentators have warned of a regulatory backlash against institutions that allow educational standards to slip as their students prioritise work over study.

A major crackdown occurred about 14 years ago after lax residency rules encouraged an explosion of enrolments in dubious training courses, with the subsequent rule changes triggering a collapse in student flows to vocational colleges.

Commentators have warned that the January rule change could become entrenched. Migration expert Abul Rizvi suspected that the change had been made to appease “tourism, hospitality and the big general business lobby groups, who keep complaining about labour shortages”.

“Undoing the policy would make these groups very angry, even if it undermines the quality of overseas students we attract and the quality of education we deliver. Both major parties will be reluctant to undo this or indeed even signal an intention to undo it during the election campaign,” he said.

Dr Rizvi said Home Affairs and Border Force officials would also be reluctant to see the policy overturned because they “don’t have the resources to enforce a policy that limits work rights”.

The International Education Association of Australia said students’ employment rules would not be a priority for the winner of the May poll. “The federal government should have anticipated that because of election timing, no effective review would take place until June,” said chief executive Phil Honeywood.

“This will equate to a full semester of many international students being under family pressure to work over 100 hours a week in some cases – not just to support themselves but to send money back home. The national regulators are no doubt keeping a watchful eye on the academic progress implications of students being compromised by paid employment pressures.”

Australian National University deputy vice-chancellor Ian Anderson said Australia should emulate the “more nuanced and strategic” approaches of competitor countries such as the UK and Canada. Professor Anderson, a former deputy secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, advocated carefully regulated “residency pathways” for international students with specific skills.

Consultant Robert Griew said this could benefit both universities and the broader community. “At a time when the Australian economy is screaming about labour shortages, we should consider encouraging young people who we’ve educated to make a life here and fill professional roles that we badly need,” he said.

“If you look at our history as a nation and an economy, bringing in people with skills we need has not gone badly for Australia.”

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