June 1, 2020
International students brought over $39 billion to Australia last year, including $26 billion spent outside the universities, making up 8% of the nation’s exports by value and supporting 250,000 jobs.
It’s hard to dream up a better export than higher education: people from other parts of the world pay us a lot of money to travel here and learn from us. And education is, far and away, our most valuable service export. We should be proud of our universities helping to educate the world.
Sydney has been at the forefront of this, with more international students than any other city globally, aside from New York and London. Or at least it used to. With Covid-19, our international student intake has collapsed, and with it a huge part of our economy. It is imperative that we bring them back.
There are several things that must happen for this to occur, not least resolving the system for physically getting students to Australia, through quarantine, and safely into the community. The universities have proposed that they fund this program of safe quarantine, and we hope the Australian government lets them do so.
Beyond this technical challenge, our visa system is the key barrier to rebuilding. While the system has worked well in the past, it is not suitable for the post-covid world. Australia is starting to lag other competitor countries and risks losing our position as a desirable place to study. The system for international students has, over the past number of years, become less inviting and more complex. Students who come to Sydney find it increasingly difficult to remain after graduation, and near impossible to transition into being a permanent resident of Australia.
For an export-oriented country like Australia, the idea that we train hundreds of thousands of talented people with links into 140 different markets across the globe, and then insist they leave as soon as they graduate, seems foolish.
We should be encouraging as many students who study advanced degrees in Australia to stay here and contribute their knowledge, talent, and global connections to local firms. Every student studying a degree in key areas of our future economy should be encouraged to remain in Australia working, and following a few years of continued employment, should be considered for permanent residency.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world is not standing still. Other countries are creating a more attractive offer to lure international students following the enforced shutdown of international travel.
Contrast the visa system in Australia with that of Canada. Canada has successfully been using recent uncertainty in the USA to poach tech firms and shift jobs north of the border. It has now turned its attention to international students.
In an effort to bridge the gap brought on by COVID-19, Canada recently introduced an allowance for international students to start their study online before travelling to Canada up to half-way through their degree. Students who commenced their study online are permitted to count that online time towards a post-study work visa. Similarly, the UK recently announced every university student will have access to post-study work. At a time when COVID-19 is making global travel and study near impossible, this clever response gives them a competitive edge.
As global competitiveness for international students heats up, Australia must respond.
The Committee for Sydney believes that we should change our international student visa system in three ways:
Now is the time to make this change – if we wait until the crisis is over, competitors like Canada and the UK will be hard to catch up to. Let’s set the rules now so that international students are able to access post-study work and permanent residency in Australia contributing economically and socially to our diverse and vibrant society.