COVID-19 has transformed the international education sector globally. As countries navigate through this health crisis, it is clear that the uncertainties raised by this pandemic on the future of universities and the international education sector are inextricably linked to not only Australia’s economy but also the economies of many leading study destinations and sending countries globally.
During COVID-19 and in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak, major destination countries explored different ways to secure international student recovery. Flexibility and incentives around post-study work and migration tend to offer a quicker route to attract international students and thus international education recovery.
Australia’s third largest export sector, worth over AUD $40 billion dollars and supporting nearly 250,000 full-time jobs, has been direly affected by international travel bans in place since March 2020. This saw a 16 per cent decrease in international student arrivals in the year to March 2020 and an estimated 20 per cent decline in international enrolments this year as well as next. As it stands, universities expect to lose between $3.1-$4.8 billion this year alone with forecasts of this rising to $16 billion by 2023.
The current predicament facing many international students in Australia and in other leading study destinations such as the US, UK and Canada is how measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 in the form of border restrictions and transition to online learning will impact on the quality of their education, their overall experiences and the timely completion of their courses. For many, these impacts are closely tied to whether they would qualify for post-study work visas that allow them to live and work in their host countries after they graduate.
The convergence of post-study work visa programmes in many study destinations is the latest iteration of the link between education and migration. The tacit link between education and migration nexus is one which governments are reluctant to acknowledge. Yet, it is very clear that pathways to post-study opportunities to live and work in host countries are key drivers in attracting international students. Our survey with over 1,150 international graduates found that 76 per cent of international students indicated that post-study work visa was an important factor in their decision to study in Australia.
Post-study work visa is now the default model adopted by major destination countries around the world to attract international students. But the current situation where international graduates are stranded and forced to transition to online learning jeopardises their eligibility for these visas which typically require them to spend the entirety of their studies onshore.
In March, Canada rolled out measures permitting international students who spend part of their studies online either onshore or offshore to still count that time towards their eligibility for post-study visas, provided that those offshore do complete at least 50 percent of their courses onshore.
More recent developments to support international students also include a priority visa processing and a two-stage approval process, both designed to secure international students and lock in their commencement with online learning. The UK similarly announced that on the proviso international students arrived in the UK by April 2021, they would maintain their eligibility for the post-study work visa (Graduate Immigration Route) even if they commenced the 20/21 study year online.
Being agile in this space is critical in attracting international students especially on the back of the US’s shock decision (which it quickly rescinded) to send home international students whose educational institutions had transitioned to online study foregrounded by the increasing number of COVID-19 infections in the United States.
It is critical for Australia to move quickly and to make adjustments permitting online study and/or offshore time due to COVID-19 to be counted towards post-study work visas and this week’s announcement simply places Australia in line with Canada and the UK, three months after the former started making strong moves to position themselves as preferred study destinations. In the immediate term, this is both fair and strategic for Australia and its international students as it ensures both ethical commitment and good economic strategy in a competitive market intensified by COVID-19.
Flexibility and support around post-study work visas might be an effective response and a quick route to create destination attraction and secure international student recovery. However, to reach more sustainable enrolment goals and ensure ethical commitment to the international cohort to delivering on promise, the move needs to be accompanied with coordinated policies to enhance employment and welfare for international students.
The UK for example announced a lower salary threshold as per their profession when international students transition from post-study to skilled worker visa, a move seen to potentially address one of the impediments in securing employment.
Australia’s current post-study work visa scheme – while among the most generous around the world – is not without shortcomings. Our study found that international student graduates were perceived as a ‘complicated’ labour source by some employers who had misconceptions of complex paperwork involved or that they had to act as sponsors.
Assuring access to post-study work visa in the current climate only brings Australia on par with Canada and the UK, which only partly addresses the challenges facing the international education sector. As it stands, Australia needs to harness the flexibility and some of the innovation demonstrated by its competitors and consider that for longer term and more sustainable change.
It is crucial to also work towards ensuring better employment outcomes for temporary graduate visa holders. Recommendations from our study were to raise local businesses’ awareness of the temporary graduate visa, its purpose and scope to decrease stereotyping and give international graduates more of a chance to gain skills in their field.
Another recommendation is to include an option to extend or renew the 485 visa for an additional one or two years for those who have been employed full or part-time in their field of study, or those who have started their own business in or outside their field of study with a certain level of income.
It is likely that unless both post-study work visa arrangements and employment outcomes for international students post-graduation are improved, the current issues facing international graduates could impede Australia’s competitiveness globally in the face of evolving international student expectations and converging policies relating post-study work rights in competing study destinations.
What COVID does offer is an opportunity to do things better and that is what Canada and the UK seem to be doing with policies seeking to address some of the impediments faced by international student migrants or temporary migrants. Among critical support mechanisms for international students during and in the aftermath of COVID-19, swift, well-coordinated and clearly-communicated policies across post-study work visas and employability that ensure flexibility and fairness and, at the same time, enhance employment outcomes are crucial to creating more sustainable and long lasting destination attractions.
George Tan is a Research Fellow in the Northern Institute at Charles Darwin University.
Ly Tran is a Professor in the School of Education at Deakin University and an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow.Do you have an idea for a story?
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