The governments hopes the visa measures will provide an incentive for fully vaccinated international students to return to Australia “as soon as possible”, as well as helping address current workforce shortages.
Revealing the measures, prime minister Scott Morrison said the $630 rebates students will be eligible for will apply from the next eight weeks from January 19.
Student visa holders will now temporarily be permitted to work more than 20 hours across all sectors of the economy, he confirmed.
“There are around 150,000 students who have visas who we are encouraging to come back to be there for the start of their university or college year, and that is a thank you to them for coming back and continuing to choose Australia,” he said.
“That is a thank you to them for coming back and continuing to choose Australia”
“But we also want them to come here and be able to be filling some of these critical workforce shortages, particularly those who are working and being trained in health care, aged care, those types of sectors. That will be incredibly helpful. And that will be for the next eight weeks.”
Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the student rebate visa changes – together with similar amendments made for backpackers – will have an expected cost of $55 million.
“To give you some numbers currently, as both the prime minister and I have said, there’s 150,000 students offshore,” he said.
“There are now 324,000 students onshore. There are 23,500 working holidaymakers offshore and 18,500 onshore. So that is, I think, a welcome initiative. Opening it, opening up to a much broader cohort.”
The government also said that the changes apply for new visa applications, which it said will “be processed quickly” to ensure students can come to Australia during the refund window.
As well as providing an incentive for existing offshore visa holders to bring forward their travel, these changes will generate new interest in Australia and new visa applications, it said.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia Phil Honeywood welcomed any incentives for students.
However, he added that questions are “being asked” by students as to whether the policy change is motivated by the need to backfill Australia’s labour force rather than genuine support for student welfare.
The Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia – whose members support some 90% of international students undertaking vocational training programs in Australia and around 10% of those in higher education programs – welcomed the changes.
“Australia’s international education sector has been doing it tough over the past 18 months, so these announcements from the Australian government are timely and welcome,” said Troy Williams, ITECA chief executive.
The peak body for independent providers added that the visa refunds and speeded visa application processing is “great news for international students looking to come to Australia in the next two months”.
“ITECA’s message to these overseas students is clear – confirm your enrolment with an independent tertiary education provider, and get on a plane now,” Williams said.
However, the temporary lifting working limits for students – usually capped at 40 hours per fortnight – was “cautiously” welcomed.
“Although it’s great that international students now have the ability to work across all sectors of the economy, first and foremost, the priority of ITECA members is to ensure that their students can meet the course progress requirements associated with their student visa,” Williams noted.
“Our priority and the focus of our members remains on ensuring students meet the obligations associated with their study”
“We want international students studying onshore to benefit from the knowledge and skills that can be derived from an Australian tertiary education. So while we support the ability for overseas students to work longer hours during the pandemic, our priority and the focus of our members remains on ensuring students meet the obligations associated with their study.”
The work hour change will be reviewed in April 2022, the government added.
In further news, Queensland has announced fully vaccinated international arrivals will be able to enter the state without quarantine from 1am, January 22, as it approaches a 90% target for its population to be fully vaccinated.
Its quarantine facility at Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport was previously described by tourism minister Stirling Hinchliffe as a strategic advantage before higher vaccination rates among Queenslanders were reached.