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Australia's Migration Changes and its Impact on International Students

15 May 2024
By Aidan Smith
Students at the University of Melbourne. Source: UMSU University of Melbourne /

Australia’s new migration strategy risks deterring students globally due to heightened financial burdens and limited work opportunities. These reforms are alongside the Australian Government’s increased focus on strengthening relations with Southeast Asian nations, including through education. 

With a post-lockdown surge in migration and a cost-of-living crisis in Australia, the Australian Government is aiming to curb migration with a series of visa reforms targeted at international students, who make up approximately 42 percent of temporary visa holders entering Australia.

These reforms come alongside a period in Australian foreign policy where the Government is reinvigorating its relations with Southeast Asia, as seen with the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne earlier this year. At the Summit, emerging leaders were spotlighted with their own Summit track, and the Australian Government emphasised the importance of education, skills, and people-to-people relations.

Australian universities rank within the top 50 globally, drawing significant interest from international students in the Asia-Pacific region. Particularly in Southeast Asia, Australia stands out as a favoured and prominent destination for higher education, with 38,139 students from Vietnam and 32,702 from the Philippines alone attending Australian universities.

Australian soft power manifests through its capacity to attract and influence others, a crucial element of the nation’s foreign policy. This influence is exemplified by Australia’s ability to host and educate 100 Aus4ASEAN Scholars from ASEAN member states. In Australia, these scholars not only contribute to the country’s academic landscape but also contribute to the fostering of people-to-people connections between ASEAN and Australia. However, these students face increasing challenges while studying in Australia, including rising living costs and housing insecurity.

Recent visa changes have made it difficult for prospective students to study in Australia. Reforms include a revised age limit for applying for a graduate visa in 2024, lowering it from 50 to 35 years old. This aims to prioritise long-term skilled growth over accommodating individuals nearing the end of their working careers, with these recent reforms opening new avenues for international students in skilled occupations.

Current migration reform in the Australian Government is targeted at enhancing skilled-labour growth, addressing labour shortages, and strengthening people-to-people ties by upskilling students in neighbouring regions through the Australian education system.

These reforms are aimed at enhancing Australia’s workforce vitality by lowering the age limit to attract younger individuals from Southeast Asia, a region with a substantial youth population. By welcoming international students, Australia seeks to leverage their skills and contribute to both the Australian and home countries’ economies through upskilling. This approach not only seeks to address current labour market gaps, such as in healthcare, but also foster long-term benefits with the potential for students to either return home with enhanced skills or become Australian citizens, thereby enriching the workforce, the economy, and people-to-people relations.

However, this migration strategy implemented by the Australian Government has undoubtedly impacted both current and prospective international students. Changes in the age limit and study timeframe have been significant enough to prompt a number of universities to reach out to students they previously admitted but who are still awaiting visa approvals to withdraw their enrolments. Changes have also been made to the duration of stay for international students on their student visas, with bachelor’s degrees now allowing for a three-year stay, master’s degrees for three years, master’s by research for three years, and Ph.D.s for three years. While the Australian Government assures that these anticipated changes will not significantly impact university intakes, concerns linger that the reforms might jeopardise a number of universities’ status as preferred, low-risk providers with the immigration department.

Changes to international student visas also aim to address some of the challenges for international students, particularly concerning the balance between study and work opportunities. This includes extending the duration of a post-study visa to two years and limiting work hours to 48 hours per fortnight. However, there are some drawbacks. Many overseas students need financial help, with many at risk of being priced out of Australia’s high rental market amid the ongoing rising cost of living. Despite the revisions to work hours, the financial strain remains a significant concern for prospective students contemplating studying in Australia.

Many believe the migration cap on the number of international students and age limit is going too far. Sydney University’s postgraduate representative Weihong Liang has stated that “The cap should be implemented moving forward as opposed to applying to students already studying in Australia.” Another prominent issue is the rise in accommodation expenses, which is one of the most significant financial burdens for international students. The cost of accommodation can vary depending on factors such as location, proximity to campus, and amenities provided. On-campus accommodation options may offer convenience but can also come with a hefty price tag, with the University of Melbourne charging students up to $42,120 per year for a room (at the international house).

These challenges may prompt international students to explore alternative study destinations where the cost of living is more manageable, like France and Spain for example, and lead Australia to lose out on the benefits of having such strong international cohorts, especially from Asia. Addressing this issue requires collaboration between the Australian Government and universities by expanding fixed international accommodation on campuses and bolstering support systems, such as aiding in securing award-wage work, like Job Ready Programs.

While also providing greater assistance in finding accommodation, the Government and universities can ensure that international students aren’t suffering undue hardship. Australia could look to the United Kingdom, which is increasing student accommodation by 40 percent. Relieving these pressures would also help mitigate the rising costs of housing throughout Australia.

In sum, the new migration reforms by the Australian Government aim to strengthen Australia’s economy through reduced migration yet at the expense of international students. Students find themselves grappling with challenges amid uncertainty about their education, heightened financial burdens due to the soaring cost of living, and restricted work opportunities.

Aidan Smith is a La Trobe University student currently completing an honours in international relations, writing a thesis on Australian undersea cable diplomacy: Results in South Pacific and its scalability in Southeast Asia. He worked with the La Trobe Asia team as an intern at the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.