How the West fell out of love with international students

Australia’s now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t approach reflects policy patterns in other leading education destinations

December 16, 2023
Source: iStock

In February 2022, two months after the borders had reopened Down Under, then immigration minister Alex Hawke had a message for backpackers and overseas students. “Australia is open for business. There are more jobs now available in Australia than before the Covid-19 pandemic…so come on down.”

It was music to the ears of many students, particularly from South Asia’s Covid-trashed economies. Australia had progressively dismantled all limits on the number of hours they were permitted to spend in paid work, amid big business lobbying for more foreigners to do the low-paid jobs that Australians instinctively avoid in retail, hospitality and cleaning.

Twenty months later, Australia’s newly released migration strategy has outlined a raft of changes to “reduce the misuse of student visas by those using it to seek work in Australia instead of study”.

It is not the first time that Australia has changed its message to international students. And Australia is not the only country indulging in mixed messaging – although in New Zealand, the direction of traffic is the other way.

The now governing National Party went to the October election with a policy to expand work rights for international students and their partners, and speed up visa processing for foreign students prepared to pay a little extra.

“International education is a continuous cycle of tightening and loosening of regulations,” said Dave Guerin, editor of the Tertiary Insight newsletter. “We’re in the loosening cycle.”

Canada is in the tightening cycle. Housing minister Sean Fraser has suggested that it may be necessary to cap foreign student numbers, amid a public backlash over accommodation shortages.

Canada’s 20-hour weekly limit on paid work off-campus is set to be reimposed in January. Immigration minister Marc Miller has announced a doubling of the wealth requirement for incoming international students while threatening drastic action unless provincial authorities take stronger action against exploitative colleges and agents.

“If provinces and territories cannot do this, we will do it for them,” he warned. “And they will not like the bluntness of the instruments that we use.”

In the UK, the Westminster government is reviewing the two-year post-study work visa that was reintroduced just two years ago – nine years after its initial scrapping – to “prevent abuse and to protect the integrity and quality of the sector”.

The review follows ousted home secretary Suella Braverman’s unsuccessful effort to cut post-study work rights to six months. Ms Braverman’s agitation for a crackdown on foreign students and their dependents led to a ban on family members accompanying Britain-bound undergraduates and taught master’s students.

Research has found that the UK’s post-study work visa is not easing shortages of high-skilled workers. Companies are wary about employing foreign graduates, who often end up in low-paid jobs.

That has long been the case in Australia, where the new migration strategy highlights the failure of foreign students to “realise their potential. Many international graduates are working below their education and skill level,” it notes.

If the employment circumstances of Australia’s overseas students have not changed significantly, nor have their numbers. Enrolments are broadly on par with their pre-Covid trajectory, with pent-up demand generating a surge in student visa applications that has already started to moderate.

What has changed is the politics. International students, only recently in demand to serve Australians’ coffee and stack Australians’ supermarket shelves, are no longer wanted because they occupy Australians’ apartments.

Commentators were astonished at this month’s decision to scrap graduate work rights extensions that had only come into force in July. More than half of temporary graduate visa holders are “in low skilled jobs” and not gaining the skills they need to qualify for permanent residency, the migration strategy explains. This issue can hardly have come as a surprise to the government, given that its migration review had outlined the problem back in February.

Observers are now wondering whether the revocation of the extra work rights will be applied retrospectively. They also warn that the reduced age limit of 35 for post-study work visas could rule out many PhD graduates – the same high-skilled foreigners that Australia says it wants.

Experts have long predicted a regulatory overreaction to the burgeoning numbers of students lured by lax regulation during the Covid years. Asked whether she would consider capping overseas student numbers, home affairs minister Clare O’Neil said she was confident that the measures in the migration strategy would contain the growth.

“If we do not succeed in that, of course, there are other things that we can do,” she added.

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