But for the majority of international students, the waiting game continues – and the government’s attitude towards international students during the pandemic is damaging Australia’s reputation as a study destination among some student communities.
“I applied for more than 10 requests for an exemption to return to get mandatory in-person training but was denied despite having letters of support from my university,” one international student who wished to remain anonymous told The PIE News.
Australia initially closed its border in March to all but Australian citizens, permanent residents and several other categories not including students. Certain classes of students are able to apply to individual states and territories for exemptions.
“I am really worried that if borders don’t open by January 2021, I will have no choice but to withdraw from my program which is not only educationally devastating but also emotionally devastating as I worked so hard to get into this program,” she continued.
“The Australian government is not doing enough at all. We have completely been left behind and it’s so disappointing to see a country I love doing this.”
“I applied for more than 10 requests for an exemption to return to get mandatory in-person training but was denied”
Minister for education Dan Tehan has said that the priority for the federal government remains getting all Australians home who want to come home by Christmas.
“And then we also want to see a focus on international students in the lead up to the commencement of semester one next year,” he added.
The restrictions have not only interrupted studies, but separated students from their families. Iffat Lamia, whose husband is an international student, waited in Bangladesh for 11 months to obtain student dependent visas for herself and her two-year-old daughter.
“But now we can’t go because of this travel ban,” she explained.
“My husband misses our daughter every single moment. He can’t come to us to spend his holidays. She Facetimes her daddy many times a day. She can’t talk properly but she misses her dad and cries for him.”
Lamia told The PIE that in their eight years of marriage, she and husband had never spent more than one week apart.
“Whereas now we have no idea when we are going to meet with each other again,” she said.
“Other countries have started to allow students and student dependants but Australia doesn’t give any information, no condolences, nothing at all.”
The pandemic has further heightened frustrations international students already have with government policy towards them.
“Most of the time we get emails from our instructors highlighting that all these internships are just for national students, not for international students, or that webinars are just for national students, not international students,” explained Abdullah Aljunaibi, who is studying electrical engineering at Griffith University.
“All these internships are just for national students”
“I have never seen an email that stated this webinar or this internship is just for international students. Universities are not providing the best experience, despite the high fees students face.”
Other students who spoke to The PIE lamented that in places like New South Wales and Victoria, international students aren’t eligible for the same travel concessions as domestic counterparts, despite years of campaigning to put them on equal footing.
In fact, the only aspect of the Australian international education industry students were quick to praise were university staff, who they say have gone “above and beyond” to support them despite difficult circumstances.
“I wasn’t expecting my university to be able to pull this off,” admitted Patrick Aung Khant Min at the University of New South Wales.
“But we have weekly sessions to make sure we study the lecture materials, we use Microsoft teams and Zoom for the lectures and tutorial classes,” he added, although he said that waking up at three or four in the morning for lectures due to four and a half hour time difference between Sydney and his native Myanmar wasn’t easy.
Of course, some courses do translate into digital better than others. For University of Melbourne data science student Yiran Wang, the switch to online learning wasn’t a huge problem, but she added that friends studying subjects like biology and chemistry have been more affected by the disruptions.
“They used to be able to have a two hour hands-on workshop, but right now it has been cut down to a 20-minute video,” she said.
According to Catriona Jackson, chief executive at Universities Australia, every Australian university has set up a hardship support fund, with $110 million having been provided to students in need to date.
“Australian universities are continuing to be as flexible and accommodating as they can to the needs of international students,” she added.
“[They] are doing all they can to stay as connected as possible with all their students.”
However even universities’ and other international students supporters’ best efforts may not be enough to stem the tide of growing dissatisfaction among some.
“The cost of living is very expensive. We invest so much in our education because we are hoping to have a future career here,” says Afiq Ramizi, a Malaysian commerce student at the University of New South Wales.
“But with the backdrop of Covid-19 and people losing jobs, it’s pretty hard to get a job right now. I got retrenched earlier in June,” he continued.
“I don’t think it’s the best time to come to Australia”
“Because of that, I don’t think it’s the best time to come to Australia.”
While some students are hopeful things will improve next year, there remains no indication of when the border will reopen.
The student who had applied for 10 exemptions to the travel ban further said she would no longer recommend Australia as a place to study right now.
“I’d recommend looking at countries who have borders open for students and who provided support for students,” she said.
“Australia needs to know that students won’t wait forever, we value our careers and education too much. We will go elsewhere.”