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International Students Hit All-Time High During Australia’s Worst Housing Crisis in Decades

14 Sep 2023
By Dr Adam Lucas
University of Melbourne Student Union. Source: UMSU /

International students have returned in significant numbers to pursue further education at Australia’s universities. As universities continue to cut courses and reduce expenses, international students may find it a more difficult place to study than prior to the pandemic. 

Public concerns relating to the behaviour and treatment of international students and their employment and migration status in Australia have regularly made media headlines since 2009 following a series of savage attacks on Indian students in Melbourne. Those reports received widespread negative media coverage in Australia and India, and resulted in a significant decline in enrolments from India over the subsequent years. More recent media coverage has focused on the exploitation of international students by employers and student accommodation providers.

The Migrant Resources Centre found in 2021 that 65 percent of workers on temporary visas had experienced wage theft, most of whom were international students. University colleges and student residences have similarly been accused of engaging in sharp business practices, with several criticized during and after the COVID-19 pandemic for refusing to refund accommodation fees to both domestic and international students.

The financial and emotional distress experienced by many international students during the pandemic highlighted the fact that significant numbers of them relied on part-time jobs to survive while studying in Australia. This, in turn, raised serious questions about their ability to be genuinely self-supporting, which was supposedly one of the conditions of their visa, and whether universities were doing enough to provide material support for those students during a crisis. Such questions have subsequently remained largely unexamined and unanswered.

Current migration policy has been spectacularly successful at increasing the number of international students in Australia. However, that success has been accompanied by the abject failure of universities and governments to anticipate or plan for the additional pressure this would place on rents and the availability of accommodation in and around universities. Earlier this year, it was reported that 5,000 international students heading to Perth had nowhere to stay, “prompting desperate calls from universities for staff and alumni to offer beds in their own homes to accommodate them.” Large swathes of university-owned student accommodation throughout the country have been leased out or sold off to private for-profit providers over the last decade. These providers are under no obligation to provide subsidised or low-cost accommodation to students.

Putting further pressure on an already tight housing market in our major cities, the number of student visa applications and approvals has soared as COVID infections have eased and Australia’s borders reopened.

Net student visas in the 2020-21 financial year constituted the second highest intake on record since 2008-09. International students comprised around two-thirds of Australia’s net overseas migration of 171,000 in 2021-22. To the end of June this year, annual net international student intake more than doubled over that of the previous year, hitting an all-time high of 253,940.

The record numbers of international students entering the country over the last year will undoubtedly be positive for university revenues, but not so good for those students entering an already tight housing market. Since the peak of COVID-19 in January 2021, apartment rents have increased by 12 to 16 percent in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth.

Clearly, the dire forecasts of consultancies such as Ernst and Young and others who predicted international student enrolments would not recover to their pre-COVID-19 levels any time soon have been proven wrong.  Predictions by Universities Australia (UA) that the Australian higher education system (AHES) would lose up to AUD$16 billion due to the pandemic have similarly not materialised. Total losses are now expected to be no more than one-quarter of those predicted by UA, losses which the vast majority of Australia’s universities had the financial resources to weather with minimal harm, despite their claims and actions to the contrary.

Recent revelations that thousands of international students are not genuinely studying here have placed pressure on the Federal Government to take action. Reports of dodgy migration agencies recruiting fake students with poor English language proficiency to work on below-award wages or as virtual slaves have drawn significant public attention.

Labor backbencher Julian Hill warned in October last year that the exploitation of student migration loopholes was being facilitated by unscrupulous education agents who are scamming the visa system and submitting forged documentation. Hill’s blunt assessment is that the current system is “a rort that turns a high-quality student visa into a low-rent work visa.” In response to these and similar criticisms, Education Minister Jason Clare recently indicated his intention to crackdown on educational providers who exploit international students and has increased the amount of savings that international students need to possess upon arrival in Australia.

However, Labor at both the state and federal levels has as yet shown no appetite for addressing the student accommodation crisis and its broader implications for housing affordability near universities. Federal Labor has in fact made the problem worse by doubling the number of international students it has allowed into the country over the last year.

In an attempt to attenuate some of the more egregious effects of the Morrison Government’s recent policy changes concerning work rights for international students, Labor has introduced a cap of 48 hours of paid work per fortnight as of August, which is more than double the 20 hours that had been the norm prior to the Morrison changes introduced during COVID-19. While this is an understandable move to increase international student earnings, more than doubling the number of hours they are permitted to work per week over and above the pre-pandemic norm raises serious questions about their ability to fulfil their study obligations.

Migration expert Abul Rizvi has argued the growth of temporary migration programs since the 1990s has turned Australia into a guest worker state, with almost 8 percent of the population on temporary visas. It would seem that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is happy to see this trend continue. During his recent trip to India, he made a range of commitments aimed at opening the spigot for Indian students to study and work in Australia.

The interim report by the Australian Universities Accord does not touch upon any of the issues raised here. Far more instructive is a recent paper by Marcus Hellyer and Peter Jennings, who have made a number of sensible recommendations for the reform of Australia’s international student regime which would go at least some way to ending the sector’s dependence on ever growing revenue streams from international students.

It was recently revealed by economist Cameron Murray that the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has been routinely engaging in obfuscation of the real value of international students to the Australian economy by including funds which students earn while living and working in Australia as “export income.” After probing the ABS about several of its assumptions, Murray concluded that the real value of international student exports is half or less than that claimed by the ABS.

It would therefore appear that the Australian public is being gaslighted about the financial contribution of international students to the country’s export revenue in order to rationalise what is clearly an unsustainable and arguably exploitative system. It is a shameful abuse of the ABS that it has been co-opted into this deceit, and a shameful abuse of international and domestic students that they are being charged ever higher fees for their tertiary education while university managers cut subjects, courses, disciplines and permanent academic staffing in the name of “fiscal responsibility.” The toxic legacies of this grand deception and its negative effect on both international and domestic students, as well as university staff, will take many years to undo.

Dr Adam Lucas is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong. His research and collaboration across academia led to the formation of Academics for Public Universities and Public Universities Australia in 2020 and 2021, both of which are public interest advocacy organisations promoting governance and financial reform of the Australian higher education system.

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