After nearly two years of closed borders, international students are returning to Australia. In the first six weeks after the Australian government opened the border to international students in mid-December, the number of international students increased by 29,856.
However, there are approximately 300,000 fewer international students in Australia than there were prior to the pandemic. Approximately 147,000 current student visa holders are still outside of Australia.
Not only will educational institutions watch the rate at which these students return with bated breath. International students are an essential part of the workforce in various industries—many works in the hospitality and caregiving industries. The Australian government attempts to entice international students to return by offering visa refunds and easing restrictions on their employment opportunities.
These short-term arrangements highlight the sometimes tense relationship between international education, migration, and the labour market.
The loosening of border restrictions in December 2021 has reversed the steady decline in international students. At its lowest point, there were 248,750 international students in Australia. This was a fall of about 57% compared to before the pandemic, and the lowest level since 2007.
Since the borders reopened, students have returned to Australia significantly from some countries than others. The numbers of students from India and Nepal have increased the most. Students from these two countries account for over 50% of the increase in the past six weeks.
On the other hand, Chinese international students have not returned to Australia as quickly. Over 86,000 of them are still living outside of Australia. That equates to roughly 60% of all international students studying abroad.
However, this does not mean that Chinese students will not return. China has seen the most significant increase in student visa holders of any country since borders opened, increasing approximately 5,500. This suggests that many new Chinese students have applied for and been granted visas.
These students may have to wait until the semester to travel to Australia.
One reason students return at different rates could be the labour market.
According to 2016 census data, Indian and Nepalese students are far more likely than Chinese students to be in the labour force. Around 78 per cent of Indian students and 87 per cent of Nepalese students are employed in Australia. This compares to less than 21% of Chinese students.
The government's efforts to reintroduce international students to Australia more quickly highlight the value of their labour in many sectors of the economy.
According to the 2016 census, current and recently graduated international students made up about 2% of the total labour force.
This student labour force is concentrated in areas where there are shortages.
Before the pandemic, approximately 15% of waiters, 12% of kitchen hands, and 10% of cooks and chefs were current or recently graduated international students.
Approximately 11% of commercial cleaners were current or recently graduated international students. These occupations have had a difficult time finding qualified candidates.
International students also play vital caregiver roles. Before the pandemic, approximately 9% of all nursing support staff and personal care workers in long-term care facilities were current or recent international students.
Many other occupations with many international students in the pre-pandemic workforce are reporting vacancies far above pre-pandemic levels.
Access to the Australian labour market has been a controversial aspect of international education. International students are required to demonstrate they are a “genuine” student, and not using a student visa to enter the country primarily to work.
Yet the reasons for international students to select Australia as a destination are varied and complex. The ability to work is an important consideration.
Australia uses access to the labour market to compete with other countries for students. In 2008, Australia removed the need for students to apply for a separate work visa. International students have been able to work 20 hours a week. That limit has now been lifted until at least April 2022.
The need to temporarily relax work restrictions demonstrates that international students are essential to more than just universities. Their efforts will benefit a large number of Australians.
It is critical to protect international students' rights when welcoming them back. These students are particularly vulnerable to workplace exploitation. Current visa policies may encourage international students to cycle through low-cost courses to stay in Australia.
As international education recovers, a better understanding of the relationship between international education, migration, and employment can help inform policy that protects the interests of all stakeholders in the sector.