International students are returning to Australia after almost two years of closed borders.
The number of international students in Australia increased by 29,856 in the first six weeks after the Australian government opened the border to them in mid-December.
But there are still about 300,000 fewer international students in Australia than before the pandemic. Around 147,000 current student visa holders remain outside Australia.
Read more: Border opening spurs rebound in demand from international students
It’s not just education institutions that will be anxiously watching the rate at which these students return.
International students are a vital part of the workforce in many industries. In particular, many work in hospitality and carer roles. The Australian government is trying to entice international students to return by offering visa refunds and easing limits on their access to the workforce.
These temporary arrangements highlight the sometimes uneasy relationship between international education, migration and the workforce.
What has changed since the borders opened?
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.
Read more: Why the international education crisis will linger long after students return to Australia
Since the borders reopened, students have returned to Australia in larger numbers 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.
By comparison, Chinese international students have not returned to Australia as quickly. Over 86,000 of them remain outside Australia. That’s about 60% of all international students who are still overseas.
But this doesn’t mean Chinese students will not return. China recorded the largest increase of any country in student visa holders since borders opened, up by about 5,500. This suggests many new Chinese students have applied for and been granted visas.
These students may be waiting until the start of semester before travelling to Australia.
Read more: Australia's strategy to revive international education is right to aim for more diversity
Why is the labour market important?
One reason students are returning at different rates may be due to the labour market.
According to 2016 census data, Indian and Nepalese students are much more likely to be part of the workforce than Chinese students. About 78% of Indian and 87% of Nepalese students are employed in the Australian workforce. This compares to less than 21% of students from China.
The government’s efforts to get international students back to Australia more quickly highlights how important their labour is to many parts of the economy.
The 2016 census showed current and recently graduated international students made up about 2% of the total labour force. This student workforce is concentrated in areas reporting shortages.
Before the pandemic, about 15% of waiters, 12% of kitchen hands and 10% of cooks and chefs were current or recently graduated international students. About 11% of commercial cleaners were current or recent international students.
These occupations have faced widespread difficulties in finding staff.
International students also work in important carer roles. Before the pandemic, about 9% of all nursing support staff and personal care workers in aged care were current or recent international students.
Many other occupations where the pre-pandemic workforce included large numbers of international students are recording vacancies at well above pre-pandemic levels.
Read more: COVID halved international student numbers in Australia. The risk now is we lose future skilled workers and citizens
What are the implications of students’ role as workers?
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.
Following the 2011 Knight Review, many international students have been able to apply for a post-study visa. This lets them work in Australia for between one and five years after finishing their course.
Competitor countries are also using post-study work rights to attract a bigger share of international enrolments.
Read more: International student numbers hit record highs in Canada, UK and US as falls continue in Australia and NZ
The need to temporarily loosen work restrictions shows it is not just universities that rely on international students. Many Australians will benefit from their labour.
In welcoming international students back to the country, it is important to ensure their rights are protected. These students can be particularly vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace. Current visa arrangements can encourage international students to cycle through cheap courses so they can stay in Australia.
As international education recovers, a better understanding of the link between international education, migration and employment can help inform policy that protects everyone’s interests in the sector.