International students manoeuvring through Australia’s COVID-19 climate: the Absolute Immigration panel

7th August 2020

It is undisputed that the era of COVID-19 has been a tumultuous one for non-citizens and non-permanent residents in Australia, particularly international students. We saw a sudden shift in sentiments towards international students: one minute Australia is the ideal destination for studies, positioned as“welcoming” and one of the “most diverse” countries. The next minute, Scott Morrison tells international students to “go home”, leaving many international students with the complications of visa extensions, future study plans, and whether they actually can return (according to the Council of International Students Australia). Now Australia has changed lanes again to invite international students back, and granting student visas has recommenced.

The Australian Government has also announced changes to student visas to ensure international students aren't any more disadvantaged by the impact of COVID-19 to their studies and visas. You can read more about those announcements here.

Absolute Immigration was pleased to host a panel of international students from a range of Melbourne institutions to provide their insight and opinion on the impacts of COVID-19 on their lives.

Our line-up consisted of eight insightful international students: Ashutosh Upadhyay, Dixit Arora, Lauren Angela Ortega, Helen Xu, Priscilla Isabel Chikerema, Alex Vu, Nicholas Ong, and Peter Labang.

Moderated by Absolute Immigration’s migration administrator, Malaika Khattak, we sought to understand and empathise with the impacts COVID-19 has had on one of the most affected groups in Australia. As an immigration consultancy, we are in a privileged position to be able to share these thoughts with our audience who can see for themselves what a sample of Victoria’s international students are going through in the midst of COVID-19.

We began our discussion by touching on the general impact COVID-19 has had on our panellists’ lives.

Ashu and Alex, two international students who decided to remain in Australia during COVID-19.

What do you feel are the major impacts?

Ashutosh (animation student): “work from home … is the main thing affecting me”

This has had a big impact on other students who need to attend university for practical classes, such as biology students.

Peter (law student): “I’ve been studying at libraries for my whole degree [and now] lack the self-discipline to study at home”.

Both Helen and Peter lost their jobs due to the consequences of COVID-19, Helen in particular felt lucky to be supported by her parents back home in China.

Helen: “[But] not all parents can afford … the fees for international students”.

Many people who have planned and saved to send their children to Australia to study have now also lost work in their home country as a result of COVID-19 and can’t afford to continue paying fees or supporting their children. And for those who do want to return to their home countries being able to afford the cost of the flight is another issue.

What strategies are you using to cope with the impacts of COVID-19?

Given the atypical circumstances, we asked our panel about some of the strategies they adopted to cope with the change.

Lauren: “Making a timetable [helped to] feel like everything is normal”, as well as going out and exercising.

During isolation, she said her motivation was “to be a better person after this”, since this was “something that is out of [her] control”.

Helen felt that staying home was normal but restricted in general, where she felt she was losing and wasting time, where time management is important for online study. To combat this, she looked to online courses held by universities around the world to “learn something different”.

Communication became key for many of us during the pandemic. Ashutosh noted that talking to parents was a helpful mechanism for him.

Has the $1,100 Emergency Relief Fund helped?

The panel occurred in the wake of the government’s relief fund for international students. The payout was a one-off payment of $1,100 to eligible international students.

Our panel had mixed reactions to the announcement.

Dixit noted it would not be enough for living circumstances, where Alex and others thought it would ultimately depend on how long lockdown would go on for.

The nature of the selective payout was also noted by Helen, lending to the mixed reactions.

Have you received any other support?

Besides the support announced by the government, other avenues of support were available for students to help with the financial burden of COVID-19.

Lauren reached out to her university to apply for financial support , noting that her “university’s support … [was] really fast”.

Helen: “Some of my friends trapped in China … still have to pay rent” in Australia but “can’t get any penny” for support from the government – “all fees covered by themselves”.

Dixit’s other housemates have lost their jobs where “most of [them] are casuals”. For his current job, it took him eight months to find it before being stood down during the pandemic, being told he would have to wait. Yet, unlike his other friends, he is confident that he will still have a job after the pandemic, as assured by his employer.

He also expressed concern about “parents having issues to send money”. “What will we do?” he asked, if there is no income supporting students and parents are burdened with sending money. He equated $1,100 to rent, the phone bill, and two weeks’ groceries. Dixit also looked into releasing his superannuation but was told that if he gets his superannuation, his bank will then close his account.

Dixit: “The pandemic is making me realise who is helping [us] and who is not.”

Dixit was “not sure if [the Government] would help us” but “after [being told to “go home], I felt so offended”. Paying so much for university, Dixit believes he “could have started a business back home” instead.

Ashu: “Telling us to go home, that hurts the most.”

Lauren highlighted the need for more than just financial support, “[students are] here and also struggling” and “we don’t need just financial help”, “empathising with us is already good enough”.

Deciding to stay or go?

Although there was a lack of choice to leave the country due to the closed boarders, we asked our panel whether they thought staying in Australia was indeed the better option.

For Peter, “it depends on how long this whole thing goes on” – “a month or two, it’s better to stay” in Australia, but in the long run going back home would be cheaper in regards to bills and rent.

For Dixit going home isn’t really an option. He is in the last year of his Bachelor’s degree and as he’s studying a practical degree studying online and not physically going in to university isn’t really an option.

Dixit: “All of a sudden I’m doing it virtually and I don’t have access to those resources” and “machines that only university can afford”.

Although some of our panel had been asked by their parents to return while borders were still open, Ashu noted that there would be a “problem in getting back” to Australia and thus would affect any subsequent studies.

Lauren’s mother suggested going home at first given that everything is online but thought that “staying in Australia is the best” for her now.

Helen also added her friends’ have attempted to go back home, and although they could purchase tickets, they were continuously cancelled (one friend had tried to get four tickets).

Where we are now

Although borders are still closed to most non-citizens and non-permanent residents, the ACT will begin accepting international students in July, with the possibility of other states following suit. This is in light of the massive loss in income universities are currently suffering and will continue to suffer without the presence of international students in Australia. The ABC notes statistics from Mitchell Institute that predict Australia could experience a $40-billion loss by 2023 due to the absence of international students in both Australian universities and the Australian economy.

To address this massive deficit, as of 20 July, the government has announced that it will recommence granting student visas for international students in a bid to reinvigorate international education in Australia.

Along with this, there are a number of other changes made to student visas to support international students which you can read more about here.

With the massive financial losses, we can appreciate the unprecedented anxiety that international students would be suffering, both those stuck in Australia and outside. The isolation, the public commentary, the middling government support – all these factors would accumulate into a stressful experience of navigating the COVID-19 era and beyond as an international student.

For any inquiries relating to your student visa or any other visa

Contact one of our registered migration agents today