Belle Lim

Pictured: Belle Lim. Photo: Supplied

Opinion: International students are not the problem – How Australia treats us is

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said he is “unashamedly” slashing international student visa numbers to “restore public confidence in the migration system”.

Some 177,000 bright-eyed young students who newly arrived in Australia for the 2024 semester are in for a shock. Despite contributing on average $64,000 a year to the country's economy – in tuition, rent, living costs, and tourism – we are apparently responsible for complex social issues in Australia.

From housing strain to education quality, and to social cohesion, the nearly 200% rise in the international student number in the last decade is an easy punching bag for politicians. To this end, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese this week said he is “unashamedly” slashing international student visa numbers to “restore public confidence in the migration system”.

"We have seen examples where the motivation and incentive for people coming here wasn’t so much to get an education and upskilling, but... to get here and then to reapply in different ways," he said. "We want to crack down on those issues."

International students, however, are not the problem for the most parts. A recent report by the Student Accommodation Council contested the claims repeatedly paddled in public debate, including by opposition leader Peter Dutton, that international students caused Australia's housing crisis. In actual fact, we make up only 4% of Australia's rental market.

To attribute the rental market that is influenced by a complex set of supply and demand drivers to international students is misleading policy decisions. Similarly, education quality and social cohesion are important issues to address – not by reducing international student numbers, but by actually recognising us as part of the solution.

Firstly, international education at $48 billion annually is one of Australia’s largest and most sustainable export industries. Australia cannot afford to lose this income source as the country seeks to mend the hole caused by the pandemic. The taxes that the government collects from this sector at least partially go towards supporting the people doing it tough in the midst of this cost-of-living crisis. What policymakers should look at is incentivising more efficient and equitable distribution of this income to stimulate better education and service delivery to all consumers. Major universities, the biggest winner of the sector’s success, should be accountable to its international and domestic student body as well as the community.

Secondly, international students are an untapped talent pool for the workforce. International graduates who are trained and upskilled by Australian education are consistently underemployed. The underutilisation of their productive capacity in terms of hours, skills and qualifications represents a key source of inefficiency in Australia’s labour market. As Australia seeks to turbocharge its high-tech manufacturing and green energy capabilities, international graduates can contribute to an ongoing pipeline of highly skilled workforces.

Thirdly, the Australian public should be reassured because of, not in spite of, its international students. Public confidence in the migration system is heavily influenced by the narratives. While migration reform is timely to address outdated policies, genuine international students are a cohort that brings a strong net benefit to Australia’s national interest.  This should be recognised and celebrated on the national stage. In their choice of words, politicians can choose to promote social divide or cohesion.