Last Australian state unveils lifeline for foreign students

While NSW support package is dwarfed by Victoria’s offering, reopening economy suggests better times ahead for struggling students

May 17, 2020
Sydney Opera House, Australia
Source: iStock

The New South Wales government has announced a support package for international students, amid signs that the coronavirus-induced hardships afflicting foreign students in Australia are starting to ease.

NSW skills and tertiary education minister Geoff Lee tweeted that the government would fund temporary crisis accommodation for stranded international students as part of a A$20 million (£10.6 million) package aimed at “protecting the vulnerable and maintaining the state’s track record as a leading global study destination”.

Little detail has been provided about the package, which was eagerly awaited after all other Australian states and territories unveiled their own assistance schemes in April. The NSW announcement appears to have been rushed after revelations in parliament late on 15 May.

The state’s treasury secretary, Michael Pratt, reportedly told an inquiry into the NSW government’s management of the pandemic that two funding packages to support international students had just been approved.

The state government was under mounting criticism to do more to help foreign students. “The pandemic began weeks ago,” opposition leader Jodi McKay pointed out on 1 May. “Every Australian state and territory has acted and the failure of NSW to do so is disgraceful.”

Over the weekend, the ABC reported that the newly announced package included temporary housing delivered through approved student accommodation or homestay providers, along with boosted legal services and free advice for foreign students from the NSW government’s 24-hour Covid-19 hotline.

However, as of 18 May, callers to the hotline were simply being redirected to pre-existing information on the Study NSW website.

Provision of crisis accommodation could benefit some overseas students struggling to support themselves after the pandemic forced the closure of businesses where many work, such as cafes and restaurants. Overseas students, unlike their domestic counterparts, are not eligible for income support and have been excluded from the federal government’s JobKeeper employment subsidy scheme.

Australian social media has carried images of a huge queue of foreign students lined up outside a Sydney restaurant offering free meals. According to reports, some had walked many kilometres because they could not afford public transport fares.

Unlike the assistance being offered in other states, the NSW package does not appear to include cash handouts or food hampers. Victoria, which attracts fewer international students than NSW, has invested more than twice as much money into a A$45 million scheme which includes emergency relief payments of up to A$1,100.

Nevertheless, increasing activity in the Australian economy could trigger an employment rebound for struggling students. Some NSW pubs, cafes and restaurants reopened to limited numbers of patrons on 15 May. Every other state and territory apart from Victoria has similarly eased restrictions.

There are also signs that a supposed mass exodus of international students from Australia has not eventuated, despite anecdotal reports of students’ families organising charter airlifts to China.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show no spike in student departures. Over the three months since the country closed its borders to arrivals from China, 40,000 fewer people on student visas have left Australia than in the same period of 2019.

But arrivals have plummeted, with just 30 foreign students flying in last month compared to over 46,000 in April 2019.

Meanwhile, signs of a gradual reopening of Australian campuses may bolster students’ spirits. South Australia’s government permitted a resumption of face-to-face teaching on university campuses on 11 May, reflecting measures under consideration in other states and territories.

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