Australia’s higher education sector contributes billions to the nation’s economic prosperity, with international students playing an enormous role. Despite this, over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, the same international students have been left feeling abandoned and poorly supported by existing government programs.
Australia’s reputation as an education hotspot is becoming increasingly disputed, with international students growing frustrated by the lack of social and economic supports made available to other communities. With the continued exacerbation of further funding cuts to universities expectantly hitting higher education institutions’ pockets -will Australia’s international student sector rebound? Or will it leave a financial black hole that will burden generations to come?
According to the Department of Education and Training, and Deliotte Access Economics, roughly half a million international students in Australia contributed around $20 billion to Australia’s economy in 2015.
In 2019-2020, this contribution jumped to over $30 billion, making international education the country’s third largest export as suggested by The Asia Society. This figure includes students enrolled in private colleges and non-university technical education institutes.
The sector supports over 140,000 full-time jobs, and prior to the debilitating impacts of COVID-19, established itself as one of Australia’s most lucrative economic divisions.
Despite their prominence in our country’s economic fortunes, the international education sector, and international students in particular continue to go largely underappreciated and undervalued. One only has to trawl through public comments on social media to gain an indication of the attitude towards international students evident in the community.
These comments were made on both The Guardian and ABC News Facebook posts. Both were examining the impacts of COVID-19 on the international student community, and both painted an immensely grim picture of the situation facing these students. The response from the community – though largely positive – were tarnished by such comments.
Though these views are by no means universal, there is an apparent apathy toward international students, supplicated by an equally apathetic federal government.
“We feel abandoned, cut out and irrelevant” says Mohini [name changed for privacy], an International student studying nursing through a medium-sized private provider. “I thought of Australia positively before this, I think my ideas have changed” she adds.
“Neglected…we feel neglected, they [the government] could have done better, but they don’t seem to want to” Mohini said, reiterating her view that the federal government overlooked the situation of many internationals currently in Australia.
While few international students have returned to their home countries prior to the worst of COVID-19, the vast majority opted to stay in Australia, students like Mohini cite paid university courses as a reason.
“I have paid thousands to study here; I can’t simply leave this and go back… I will be in severe debt” Mohini noted. Essentially, students are largely trapped until border closures ease
The mental health ramifications of the country’s attitude toward, and arguable abandonment of international students will have severe impacts on their mental health. This can notably influence their future commitments to choose or recommend Australia as a destination.
While sections of the international student community in Australia have gained access to the government’s numerous welfare schemes, particularly during COVID-19, the majority are still surviving off what work they can find. Many seek any financial aid from their parents or families back home.
“I’m only alive because of my family, there are no jobs even though I have applied everywhere” Mohini says.
“Even though things are better now, I’m still struggling to find work, no one wants to hire an international, and those that do offer to underpay me” she adds.
Factors like the intense social pressure to conform, performing well in studies, and finding and gaining meaningful employment are bound to place mental pressure on students – whether international or domestic. To add to the strain, COVID-19 has intensified these mental pressures facing students, heightening inequities evident within the international student community through a lack of adequate governmental support. Recent research by Usher et al. in the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing has pointed to the immensely ruinous effects of the pandemic on the mental health of international nursing students in Australia.
In their study, Usher et al. allude to the ongoing psychological stress and trauma experienced by this community, and of its exacerbation owing to weak financial and social supports by the federal government. This, coupled with poor employment prospects and looming rent and overheads, have caused the international student community to almost completely buckle.
With these widespread mental health problems, wellbeing and mental health services need to do better for the international student community. For instance, Mohini has no mental health support structure available through her provider – a common problem with private education services.
While International students continue to contribute to the economic fortunes of Australia – our continued pressure and our apathy to their situation makes it unlikely the sector will recover.
With a new batch of domestic students across the country set to begin their own university studies in 2021, it is likely these students’ experiences will be different to those of cohorts beginning tertiary study in earlier years.
There can be no doubt, however, that despite a considerably reduced and digitised experience of tertiary education, these domestic students will at least (mostly) still have access to financial, mental and physical supports in order to exceed in their studies. These same opportunities have been largely unafforded to the international student community, who have unfortunately had to rely on their own networks and connections in order to survive.