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Australia's COVID-19 lockdown and its impact on foreign students

By Warren Reed - posted Friday, 8 May 2020

Strong words have been written and uttered in the Australian media since the country went into lockdown on the lack of federal government assistance for its large number of foreign students, especially those studying at tertiary institutions.

Laurie Pearcey, pro vice-chancellor international at UNSW Sydney and a fluent Chinese speaker, wrote in The Australian on April 29 ("Concerned parents have long memories") that, "Australia's treatment of international students during its response to a once-in-a-century pandemic has been heartless, narrow-minded and potentially economically shortsighted. And it is bigger than Scott Morrison's comment that international students should just go home if they are unable to support themselves. This sentiment has been entrenched in the government's response from the moment it took steps to protect the country from COVID-19."

This seems odd when education is a major income-earner for Australia as a whole at some $A24 billion and comprises a massive slice of virtually every university's annual budget. Statistics show that more than 60 per cent of international student spending is outside the education system and sustains an estimated 250,000 jobs in the broader economy. Most foreign students come from the Asian region, with the largest contingent from China followed by the Sub-Continent. Comparable countries with large numbers of foreign students have granted assistance of around $600 per week, while all Australia has managed is $200 million of funding to charities that provide help, especially food, to students in need.


This runs counter to the spirit of the Colombo Plan that began in the early 1950s and saw significant numbers of foreign students come to Australia, initially from British Commonwealth countries and later also from the Asian region. In those days, most students lived with Australian families with which they built up life-long bonds. Fourth generation students still come to Australia for their university studies, maintaining those family links, and the numbers of key decision-making alumni across Asia are so vast they're difficult to keep track of. Supplementing all this are the many thousands of Australian students who have gone overseas, particularly into Asia, over the past 50 years. These two-way flows constitute the most meaningful way in which Australia has gradually come to weave itself into the human fabric of the region it resides in.

In the 1970s, when this writer was a student in Japan, a series of global Oil Crises struck, which immediately gutted the value of the scholarships some of us were lucky to be on. While in no way comparable to COVID-19 and with no need seen for the Japanese government to subsidise foreign students, the way Japanese society as a whole, and individuals and families in particular, stepped in to assist was memorable. The head of an extended family this writer knew well was a geologist who had spent lengthy periods of time in Western Australia helping Peter Wright and Lang Hancock uncover many of that state's huge iron ore deposits. He understood how far beyond reach beef was for any Australian student in Japan; it was astronomically expensive. Yet this writer was regularly invited to eat with that family, with beef always served and a sizeable "doggy bag" to take home later.

Similarly, six Japanese nuclear engineers with a large company made contact via a mutual friend and said they had a budget to study English which they weren't using. Lessons three nights a week were speedily arranged, which were always followed up with solid meals and drinking sessions, all paid for.

In the same spirit, all sorts of Australians have stepped in now to help foreign students here who have found themselves under great stress. Nowadays, not that many students live with local families; shared accommodation in houses or apartments is more common. But the community has responded, and in myriad ways – not just via charities providing free meals. The latter are doing sterling work, as are the many local companies that regularly provide them with free supplies.

Is it too late for the federal government to step in with a meaningful gesture? No, it's never too late.

To quote from Laurie Pearcey's article, "It will take the world a long time to adjust to whatever is waiting for it on the other side of this pandemic. But the way we treat our international students now will have very real implications for those who choose to come here in the future." Equally, it could impact on the way Australian students going into Asian societies are received. What goes around comes around.

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About the Author

Warren Reed was an Australia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee scholar in the Law Faculty of Tokyo University in the 1970s. He later spent ten years in intelligence and was also chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. He served in Asia, the Middle East and India.

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