An international student in his early 20s – let’s call him Ari (not his real name) – came to our rescue.
Ari spent 30 minutes ferrying jeans of all sorts – high-rise, low-rise, stone wash, stretch, skinny leg, boot leg, in and out of the change room. He explained the differences, with extraordinary patience, to a girl a decade his junior. He finally convinced her to buy the slightly looser style “because it was very important to be comfortable while you are studying”.
In the final year of a highly complex degree at a local university, he loved the part-time job: he could keep studying, his managers were very good to him, and he was excited to be close to finishing his studies. He didn’t say he was anxious about his future, but you could tell he was, underneath the polite chat.
Like the rest of us in those early days, he secretly hoped things would be OK, but feared they wouldn’t.
Ari’s employer closed their doors the week after our visit.
It would be a tragedy for Ari, and for his family, who supported him, to have to drop out of his studies or return home with the finish line so close.
But that is the reality facing many of the more than 310,000 international higher education and research students who live, study and, until recently, work in Australia. Like their Australian friends, many have part-time jobs in retail and hospitality – two sectors hit hard by this global pandemic. Unlike the Australians, as temporary visa holders, international students are not eligible for JobSeeker or JobKeeper payments.
The university sector has recognised that many have fallen through the cracks in Australia’s COVID-19 response. That’s why every Australian university now offers some form of hardship support for their international students. There are grants to cover immediate, essential-living costs, meals and accommodation, and subsidised IT equipment to help with online study, as well as schemes to defer tuition payments.
It has been heartening to see state and territory governments step up, announcing hardship packages of their own, either directly for international students, or for temporary visa holders in general. At the time of writing, the Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia had all announced initiatives. The Federal Government has also allowed international students access to some support via its $200 million community support package.
This Government support recognises a human responsibility, but also acknowledges the huge success story that international education has been for Australia. Exporting our world-class education to our region and beyond has earned the nation $39 billion each year in export income.
In South Australia, international education as a whole recently overtook wine as the biggest export industry, worth around $1.9billion in 2018-19. In NSW, international education was worth $13.9 billion in export income.
International students support Australian jobs, 127,300 of them according to recent Deloitte Access Economics’ modelling. These are local jobs in retail, grocery, accommodation, tourism and related industries, as well as higher education.
It brings other benefits too – giving Australian students a global network. More than 80 per cent of international students return home after study, taking with them a deep connection to and understanding of us and of our nation. Often, they go home to run governments and national corporations. Educating them is an invaluable investment in soft diplomacy.
The level of support students are entitled to shouldn’t depend on which state or territory they live in. That’s why universites continue work with governments around the nation to ensure that we are treating these students, these promising young people, with the kindness we would want our children to receive.
There is much we cannot control at the moment. But we can control how we treat people. Ari and his friends from 140 nations, who have left home to study here, deserve as much respect and basic support as their classmates from Brisbane, Hobart or Wagga.
None of us knows exactly when shops will reopen, when, and if, jobs will reappear. But we do know that Australia has benefited enormously from opening our education system over the past six decades.
Supporting international students in tough times is not just helping friends in need, it is a sound investment in our economy and our collective future. It sends a clear message overseas to potential students thinking about their post COVID-19 future that Australia is a caring nation and a smart choice.
Catriona Jackson is the Chief Executive of Universities Australia.
As published on The Australian on 28 April 2020