Helpless International Students – Have we forgotten about them?

Image: An aerial view of Melbourne CBD, (Flickr)

An opinion by Bikash Pandey, CEO, Vibe College, Brisbane.

I have been keeping myself informed about the developments of the ongoing health crisis – ever since its onset, till it became a global pandemic, and its effects on human lives and national economies. I have watched nations close down their borders and world leaders announce relief packages, and amidst all these my concern remains with the ones that are the closest to me.

As someone who works in the Vocational Education and Training sector, my thoughts are with my students – especially the international students. I wonder how they are surviving being away from home and the fallout of the economy simultaneously.

I think of all the people and organisations working tirelessly, from organisations providing relief packages to international student body organizations asking for the rights of the students, and I feel a similar emotional drain. Amidst all these I wonder why representatives from states who benefit from the influx of international students are yet to come out and acknowledge or sympathise with our international students.

But then again I think, it might be a crazy idea to divert the attention of the Australian Government towards the plight of the international students when they are already over-burdened with the responsibility of safeguarding their own citizens. As an Australian resident, I am safeguarded by the government’s decisions, but my heart aches for all the overseas students who have left their homes in prospect of better education, better opportunities, and bigger dreams. I feel their pain, for I too was an international student once upon a time.

I am familiar with the pain of the newly arrived student – I have engaged with far too many of them. “Arriving in a new country, making new friends, family members, hobbies, finding an apartment, seeking a job (being cheated or underpaid, yet having to stay quiet as they are students), and adjusting to an entirely new culture are everyday stories for me. Lack of friends who were your social therapy, missing the taste of aromatic food prepared by your loved ones, unfamiliar roads and routes to navigate, lack a family support system, the love of extra protective parents whose presence is immediately missed when one is sick or feeling down, and the 3 meals a day of sodium filled packaged noodles are few of the daily plights of an international student.

Therefore, I feel for these students at times like these when they don’t have family to fall back to, and with little to no financial assistance, their woes must be heightened. The government hasn’t yet announced anything for this community – a community of hundreds of thousands who give back so much to Australia than they take.

Every year, our Australian government spends millions of dollars towards marketing Australia as a suitable destination for international students; however are we living up to the promise? Don’t get me wrong, I am not looking for an economic assistance – sometimes kind words of encouragement, or a simple acknowledgment works miracles.

I am not a politician, but humanity is a big political agenda in my book. Right now, our government is doing lots of things and plans to support residents/citizens, however aren’t these students residents too? They live their life here, pay taxes, superannuation, and work on jobs spanning almost all sectors to keep the economy thriving. These same students contributed around $32.4 billion to the Australian economy in the fiscal year 2017-18.

As multiple stimulus packages are being announced, are we forgetting the contribution made by an international student towards thousands of Australians? Have we forgotten the number of Australians that are employed in Universities, Higher Education Colleges, and Vocational Educational Institutes? Are we forgetting insurance companies, the hospitality sector and the real estate industry? Are we forgetting the number of workers supporting critical sectors such as health care, who are the backbone of the country’s crisis response as of now?

Number of international student enrolments in Australia from 1994 - 2018. Source: Australian Government, Dept of Education and Training.
Number of international student enrolments in Australia from 1994 – 2018. Source: Australian Government, Dept of Education and Training.

It is important to note that many of these citizens and permanent residents were once upon a time international students – and today serve the country in their capacity.

These students are waiting for our government to acknowledge their existence. The enormous oversight is only going to make our overseas students feel neglected and unwanted.

I do not want this to reflect on us as a nation, as our lack of action at a crucial time as such will speak to prospective students who wish to choose Australia as their destination for further studies. I believe Australia is above this, and will not be portrayed as a nation that failed to support its international students, who like everyone else, suffer equally if not more amidst the health crisis.

At this point, almost all students are impacted by the ongoing crisis – many have been laid off, for many their shifts cut, and cannot expect support from family back home as they themselves are dealing with the crisis. Students still have to pay rent, tuition fees, groceries and other essential goods. Visas of many students are expiring, some had gone back home for their holidays and are unable to come back, and everyone that I am in touch with is sad, depressed, and sounds helpless.

I understand it is easy for me to write recommendations, however it is equally difficult to get them implemented. I personally still feel obliged to write these recommendations:

  1. Declare 6 months holiday and allow automatic extension of all student visas for 6 months, or an equivalent time lost due to the crisis. This will decrease student’s current problem, and assist education providers such as colleges, who are scrambling to get everything together to assist them towards completing their courses. Meanwhile regulators want the course work to stay true to rigid requirements that are difficult to be met during this time. For example, how are students supposed to complete their course in Commercial Cookery without placement, when none of the cafés are open? Or how are hairdressers supposed to complete their course without being able to practice on live clients?
  2. Provide a onetime $1000 payment to each student maintaining their livelihood or create a rent freeze for the whole nation as this might stop those students who are unable to pay their rents from being evicted from their residences.

Please remember that all stimulus package that have been mentioned by government for the last couple of days means nothing in the long run for our International Education industry if there are no students. If our roots are going to get chopped off, watering the branches is not going to keep the tree alive. Students are our roots for the Education industry in Australia and we need to take care of them before it is too late.

Even during the GFC, under the Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, all residents for tax purposes received a $900 relief. This is much more severe than the 2008 Financial Crisis, and I do not hear the government.

I am not an economist, but would like to revisit a thought that was presented to me when I interviewed Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker under American Heritage Lecture Series that happened at Buena Vista University on September 23, 2009. He had said “we never know until recession has already begun and we never know until the recession has already ended.” I believe that we were already heading that way even before this health impact started. Hence, our action of delaying and making one decision at a time is only going to lead towards a major havoc at the end. Hopefully, we do not turn out like Italy has at the end of all this. I understand that keeping the whole country on lockdown is not a small decision to make, however for instances like this, it is vital that we have real leaders who can make tough, inclusive decisions for the future of their residents. At present I believe that the best decision would be to keep the whole country on lockdown.

As the government is unwilling to make the hard decision, small businesses can’t ask their employees to go on voluntary leave, as that might come back to bite them when all this is done. Small time entreprenuers can’t continue running their business as they have almost depleted all that they have in establishing and running their own small business. You can hear the fear in their voice on what is coming next, however the government is failing to understand that their stimulus plan might be too late when the time comes to accessing those funds for running the business. A business that is struggling to pay rent and pay their employees, waiting to get credited for PAYG in April is not going to pay their rent and staff salaries next week. Any loans that are available in the future won’t be of much help when they can’t afford today, let alone what comes tomorrow.

Stimulus packages currently being provided seem very promising, but organisations that are small will only be entitled to a very small, proportionate amount. Hence, business having to pay rent, outgoing, salary, and all expenses but only receiving a small portion back on what is paid for won’t allow them to survive.

The Government’s request to keeping things open is only making it more difficult for the business to shut down and send employees home. If the businesses make that decision themselves, then they would have to pay their employees, whereas employers are not in a financial position to be able to do that. Also keeping these businesses open are only increasing our chances of further outbreaks, as these are being transferred from people that are unaware of having the virus and people who defy the isolation orders. Hence, it’s not safe for service sector business to be open.

In my opinion, I believe that a complete lockdown of the country is required for long term and smaller financial drain on the economy in the longer run. In one week alone we have 80,000 plus unemployment and we are waiting for another wave of unemployment.

Freezing everything at this moment means that residential rents will not have to be paid,business owners won’t have to pay rent, wages, and business and individuals do not have to pay mortgages, banks don’t need to pay, and it will allow a circular impact reducing burden on one area. I believe this action would stop many small businesses to go out of business and be able to come back to run the business at a later date. In such a case, the government can provide a small stipend, for necessities such as groceries, enough to cover the family needs if all bills are frozen. This would provide fair means for everyone, compared to prioritising the already unemployed, over people who have been hard working, law abiding citizens and paying their taxes so that the government could support other unemployed population. While making this decision even the impacted international students would have great relief if their rent is frozen as well, this would help them significantly and show more trust towards the Australian government.

I understand the logistic and methods of this lockdown are very vast compared to how I have mentioned above, but no actions are ever easy to make. Tough jobs require tough decisions and sometimes these decisions shouldn’t be about putting a band aid over a wound that requires stitches. This is no time to debate whether we need to keep business running, as currently, those who are running do not wish to. I would rather be bored at home than to end up deceased, a photo hung up on a wall as a memory to my family of my country’s leader’s unwillingness to recognise that this virus has infiltrated all our defense systems, more than what our leaders or health officials thought we would be.

Hope to see some positive action that includes all people currently in Australia, before it’s too late.

My above words are not to point fingers or get any one upset, but to bring attention to one area they are being overlooked.

About the author:

Bikash Pandey is the CEO of Vibe College, Brisbane. As a response to the outbreak, Vibe College has announced its decision to freeze tuition fees for the months of April and May. Mr. Pandey was once an international student, and interacting with students on a daily basis, knows their plight firsthand, therefore has voiced the above opinion.

His email address is [email protected].


The views expressed in the article are of the author, and do not reflect the editorial stance of Nepalese Voice.