COVID-19 has left governments scrambling for balanced economic, social and ethical policy responses.
The Australian government’s A$130 billion JobKeeper payment – a wage subsidy to keep Australians in work – is vital for our response to the pandemic and future economic recovery.
But temporary visa holders, including international temporary graduates, have fallen through the cracks. The temporary graduate visa (subclass 485) is for international graduates of a qualification from an Australian institution. It allows them to stay in Australia for two to four years to gain work experience.
There are nearly 90,000 temporary graduate visa holders in Australia.
International graduates on temporary visas rely solely on wage income to cover their living expenses. These visa holders mainly work in industries that have suffered major losses, such as hospitality, and they are not entitled to the JobKeeker payment.
The Tasmanian government has just announced a $3 million support package for temporary visa holders which would include 485 visa holders.
This is a first from any state or territory government and will hopefully spur similar support from universities and other jurisdictions – including from the federal government.
It’s time for Australia to be reciprocal and take care of international graduates, who are major contributors to our economy and society, in their time of need. It’s both a humanitarian issue and a sensible economic strategy.
A major drawcard for Australia
International education is Australia’s third largest export – behind iron ore and coal – and its largest services export. It contributes almost $40 billion to the Australian economy and creates around 250,000 full time jobs.
The 485 visa was introduced in 2008 and updated in 2013, taking on recommendations from the 2011 Knight Review, which recognised post-study work rights for international students as crucial for Australia to remain competitive in the education export market.
Since then, the temporary graduate visa has become a drawcard for international students. In our 2017-19 study, 76% international students indicated access to this visa was an important factor when choosing Australia as their study destination.
The top five citizenship countries of 485 visa holders in Australia have mirrored the top five source countries of international enrolments in Masters by coursework programs since 2013.
Many temporary graduate visa holders become skilled migrants or international students again. Of the of 30,952 visa holders who transitioned to other visas in the 2018-19 financial year, 45.3% became skilled migrants and 34.9% became international students again.
While international temporary graduates contribute to Australian tax revenues, they are not entitled to subsidised government services. This means they bring net income to the Australian economy.
Our temporary graduate visa survey and interviews show international graduates often desperately need work experience and an income to cover their living costs in Australia.
They do not want to compromise their career goals or permanent residency outcomes.
For this reason, they may be exploited and willing to accept jobs outside their field and in industries most vulnerable to job losses during a crisis.
Census data shows cleaning, sales and hospitality are among the top five jobs for international temporary graduates. And many are front-line workers serving the Australian community, especially in aged care, health care, supermarkets and the cleaning sector.
Other countries support them
Australia’s key competing destinations for international education are giving their international students, international graduates and other temporary workers access to their welfare schemes.
New Zealand is not restricting international students and graduates from accessing its wage subsidy scheme. Britain and Canada allow international students and graduates access to the Coronavirus Job Retention Subsidy and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, respectively.
Australia’s current policy jeopardises not only these international graduates’ security but also its competitiveness as a destination for international students.
On April 3, Prime Minister Scott Morrison sent out a chilling message that international students and other temporary visa holders can return to their home countries if they were unable to support themselves.
Apart from the fact international graduates can’t return to their home countries due to border closures, many have signed rental contracts in Australia.
Others may be doing further studies.
Temporary graduates are no longer international students. As a result, they do not qualify for their former university’s hardship support funds, loans and food banks or any other resources for international students.
The international education sector and universities, which rely on the 485 visa to attract international students, have a duty of care to these visa recipients.
Universities are projected to incur significant losses for the next three years due to its loss of international students.
There are many factors that will determine how well Australia’s international education industry recovers. These include the recovery of other major provider countries of international education such as China and India who continue to grapple with this pandemic.
But when the appetite for international education returns, Australia’s efforts to manage its international students and alumni in this period could reinstate its reputation and help its economic recovery.