COVID-19 has left many foreign students unemployed, stranded and needing a lifeline.
As the media pans on the plight of international uni students, often overlooked are foreign VET students who are also left struggling in the wake of the pandemic.
Over 100,000 international students "could become destitute" after losing casual jobs and not being entitled to federal government assistance, says the International Education Association of Australia.
And while various universities have created emergency funds worth $110 million to support their international students, financial relief has yet to come for VET students.
Out of all international students in Australia, 27% are enrolled in VET with CRICOS RTOs.
International VET students often hold visas that cap their work hours to 40 per fortnight, and are ineligible for welfare payments like Centrelink, JobKeeper or JobSeeker. Furthermore, the majority of the work in popular VET fields such as hospitality, tourism and creative arts are casual jobs which do not guarantee hours.
This means that many international VET students are falling through every crack in the system with no financial safety net.
Erika is an international student studying a Diploma of Nursing at TAFE Queensland. She used to work as a barista, pouring cappuccinos and lattes between classes until March, when her boss announced their mom-and-pop cafe was closing indefinitely.
Erika’s course costs $24,000. On top of that, she has to pay rent.
“I don’t know how I’m going to survive. Usually I can find a casual job but there are no jobs now. All my friends are getting Centrelink but I can’t get anything. Without my job I can’t buy food or pay rent.”
The Department of Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs headed by Minister David Coleman has allowed temporary visa holders to access their Australian super. However, with VET courses only lasting 6 months to 2 years, most VET students have not worked in Australia long enough to obtain a sustainable amount of super.
They also state that temporary visa holders are expected to support themselves—and if they can't, "it’s time to go home". Which non-existent flight they are supposed to book, they don’t say.
A plethora of academic and equity scholarships become available to university students at the beginning of each semester. They can value between $1,500 to as high as $10,000.
Where then, is the VET equivalent of the Vice-chancellor’s Scholar, Dean’s List or Elite Athlete? Is a student studying a Bachelor of Business and struggling financially more deserving of a scholarship than a student studying a Diploma of Business and struggling financially?
University qualifications are typically viewed as superior to VET qualifications. This is especially true for eastern cultures, where college education is considered the only path to a successful career. Although we’re quickly coming to see how essential “lower” jobs are to society, it will take years to change the cultural stigma.
“My parents didn’t want me to study a Diploma of Nursing. They wanted me to study a Bachelor of Nursing. They thought there would be more jobs.”
It's important to note that VET courses are much cheaper to undertake than degrees. For international students whose dream is to merely “study overseas”, heedless of qualification or reverence, VET is definitely the more economical route.
This may well be a double-edged sword. What is the likelihood that the parents who sent their child to study overseas the cheaper way have enough money to support them during COVID-19?
The government needs to recognise that VET students offer just as much to society as uni students and deserve the same amount of help; they should be offered the same support. Perhaps more critically, the government needs to realise international students are a vital part of Australia, bringing diversity and culture to our community.
Meanwhile, RTOs need to do their part to support international students during this crisis. Ensuring all students know where to find support—however minimal it may be at the moment—will ensure international enrolments continue after these unprecedented times. Point them in the right direction and keep them updated—every bit helps.
Erika concludes, “If the virus does not kill me, poverty might.”
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