Are international student work restrictions another ‘band-aid’ solution?

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Credit: Sam Bayle | Unsplash.

Australia, with its breathtaking landscapes, diverse cultures, and world-class education, attracts over 600,000 international students each year. However, amidst this allure, work restrictions tighten the lid on freedom and luxuries for international students. So, why has this already existing issue become more pressing than ever in 2023?

The distinction was felt when international students tasted freedom and opportunity after the government relaxed the restrictions throughout the pandemic. During this time, international students could work over their standard limit of 40 hours per fortnight while studying and unlimited hours during holiday breaks.

However, on 1 July 2023, restrictions were reintroduced, capping work hours for international students to 48 per fortnight. In turn, many international students were given a deadline for their full-time jobs and ‘sufficient’ income.

According to the Department of Home Affairs, these measures were taken to ensure that “student visa holders are able to focus on obtaining a quality Australian education and qualification while remaining able to gain valuable work experience, and contribute to Australia’s workforce needs.”

Yet, there is still debate among international students as to whether these restrictions can be justified – and to what extent. This is because international students have experienced hardship long before the pandemic.

“If they can’t afford to study or live here, then they should just go back to their countries” | ABC News Article.

Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed these exact thoughts to the cabinet. This narrative has long existed before the pandemic, where universities are still debating how to support to struggling international students, often with limited awareness of their harsh realities.

Many students have expressed to W’SUP News that applying for financial assistance has been arduous. During this process, they’re reminded of their promise to the government that they will afford their expenses during their stay, feeling their humanity has been disregarded. It makes you wonder:

Should international students be gaslit into managing their finances?

Section 235 (2) of the Migration Act 1958 prohibits non-citizens from exceeding their work limits, making any under-the-table employment illegal. Yet, it is no surprise that international students often resort to cash-in-hand jobs despite the risks. In that case, what impact do these work restrictions have on international students financially and emotionally when seeking work outside the ‘legal’ realm?

To better answer this question, W’SUP conducted a survey [names anonymised], where 18 international students from Western Sydney University (WSU) shared their thoughts on the impact of the recently imposed work restrictions. When asked if the restrictions impacted them financially, 73.7% claimed they were affected. Additionally, 52.6% claimed that this had affected their studies.  

“Reduced possible working hours means that it is almost impossible to earn more than previously possible. Higher rates of inflation, higher costs and low to no government concessions make it even more difficult to survive compared to the average Australian citizen/ permanent resident,” one student shared.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, salary increases and real wages have increased by 3.3% in 2022, with the inflation rate hitting 7.8% in the recent year to December.

Credit: Antenna | Unsplash.

But for international students, many of whom undertake casual jobs and pay 15.5% of income tax on average, the salary increase has had little to no effect. Additionally, international students can expect to pay between $20,000 and $45,000 for their tuition fees per semester.

In W’SUP’s survey, one student claimed the work restrictions have been “extremely difficult in every aspect as an international student who doesn’t get financial support from anyone else.”

Another student shared their insights from being employed full-time and managing a full-time study load.

“In my case, I had a permanent full-time job that I had to change because of the restrictions. Previously, I’ve been able to manage full-time study and work and excel at both. Of course, it depends on the person, but not allowing the students who can do it is a mistake”.

Surely, students would like to have the option of working more hours and balancing their work and studies, like domestic students. Building a career in a country that is not your home is no easy feat. The restrictions may have hindered the possibility for many, but for an able few, they have helped them focus more on their studies.

“You won’t have a degree to study even with all the time in the world if you can’t afford to live here. Students who are desperate to do both will be exploited by employers when they work cash-in-hand jobs,” says one of the students in the WSU survey.

The debate extends to whether Australia truly welcomes international students with open arms – or only until they require support and equal opportunities. For years, students have relied on assistance from their universities, but rising living costs and limited university accommodations have turned it into a luxury.

With the work restrictions in place and their income decreasing, international students simply seek assistance to manage their current finances and meet their basic needs.  

If you are an international student or know of a struggling student, refer them to the following resources:

Legal support

Study NSW: 02 4908 4800

Redfern Legal Centre: 02 9698 7277

Food, Accommodation and Financial Services

Ask Izzy: https://askizzy.org.au/

Food Bank: 02 9756 3099

Mental Health Support

Counselling Services at Western Sydney Uni: 1300 668 370 (option 5)

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Headspace: 1800 650 890

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

NSW Mental Health Line: 1800 011 511

Samanda Tharaki Mularachchi

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