Before and after Australian borders were closed during the pandemic, it was common to see young Indian and Nepali women working in cafés and as cashiers in shopping malls. Young Indian men dominated home delivery systems and were common sights stocking shelves and cleaning supermarkets in Sydney. They were foreign students who were allowed to work limited hours per week.
After some 30 years of resisting pressure from various employer bodies to remove the 40-hour per fortnight cap on the number of hours student visa holders could work while their course was in session, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke rolled over to pressure from the hospitality, tourism and other industries in May 2021 and announced that overseas students in Australia could work unlimited hours in the hospitality and tourism industry that was facing a serious shortage of labour.
Bowing to criticism that the move was intended to solve a labour crisis and would dent education quality, that decision was subsequently qualified by another announcement in September 2022: unrestricted work rights for student visa holders will end on 30 June next year.
In a statement on its website, the Department of Home Affairs said the reimposition of the cap was aimed at ensuring that students “focus on obtaining a quality Australian education and qualification”.
Until then, it is likely that the international students will continue to take advantage of their ability to legally work unlimited hours.
When restrictions were lifted in May 2021, the country saw a palpable spike in student visa applications from South Asia after Australia opened its borders in November 2021.
By April this year, Nepal had become the biggest source of foreign students to Australia, with student visa applications from that country hovering above the 4,500 mark in March and April, while those from India and China were close to about 3,000 per month.
Before the pandemic, India and China had provided the largest foreign student market for Australia. Given the huge middle-class populations of China and India, how did Nepal overtake them to become Australia’s largest source of foreign students?
Vocational education and training
According to Australian government statistics, there has been a large increase in vocational education and training (VET) sector offshore student applications from Nepal this year.
Since Australia’s borders re-opened, there have been more VET sector offshore student applications from Nepalese nationals than from India, China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka put together. Chinese and Indian applicants continue to prefer a university education.
The VET sector has traditionally recruited its students from those who are already in Australia, often poached from among university students who, after a year or two of undergraduate studies, feel they need a change in career focus.
Australian immigration authorities have traditionally subjected offshore VET applicants to a high degree of scrutiny and hence there has been a high refusal rate. The approval rate for Nepalese offshore primary VET sector student applicants has, since November 2021, averaged well over 80%.
This worries Dr Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Immigration. He argued in a commentary published by Independent Australia in May this year that Australia’s student visa is now essentially an “unsponsored work visa rather than one focused on study”.
This view is shared by a Sydney-based Nepali immigration agent (who did not want to be named) who told University World News that Nepali parents are ever willing to fork out the money – even if they have to borrow it – to get a student visa to send their child for education to Australia, because they know they can recoup that money quickly.
“Once in Australia the student could self-finance the studies by working and in the long term they can even earn the family an income by working after graduation,” he said. “If the child wants to go to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand or India for studies, parents are unlikely to fork out the money for it.”