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Reality of student life exposed at PIE Live Australia

While leaders from across the Australian and wider APAC region met on the Gold Coast to discuss the current challenges in international education, it was the students themselves that brought the reality of their lives and decision making into sharp focus.

Griffith University student Mercy Atukunda spoke at the event. Photo: Thurtell Photography

Some students revealed that they had already invested up to AUS$200,000 in Australia

Twenty five students from 20 countries had the opportunity to speak to leaders at a roundtable session hosted at The PIE Live Australia conference in partnership with Study Gold Coast and the session sponsors Scape.

Confident, articulate, entrepreneurial and hard-working, it was a timely reminder of the incredible value international students bring to Australia.

The Australian sector has faced significant challenges in recent years including a long-lasting lockdown of international borders, a lack of government support for stranded international students, shifting rules on working hours and pressure on accommodation supply and rental fees.

After a period of uncapped work rights, the Australian government recently reintroduced a 48-hour per fortnight cap on working hours for international students in a bid to reduce non-genuine student applications and rebalance study and work priorities.

The students, however, were keen to point out to the leaders in attendance that this move limits both their finances and wider ambitions.

Jenifer Cardenas, a student from Colombia, told the audience “I can say that as an international student here, we could work more than 24 hours [per week] for sure. Why? To survive.

“In our home countries, we work more than 40 or 50 hours per week. The math is clear and [the Australian government] should know that we can work and we can complete everything in our school because we are hard workers.”

Kelly Lizarazo, a student from Mexico, explained the rising cost of rent in Australia will mean it is impossible to balance her outgoings with the new cap on work hours.

“Right now I’m working 24 hours, I’m earning around AUS$750 where my fees for my school are $350 plus my rent is $350. That allows me with $50 to survive, buy food and pay for meals. Do you actually think I can do it? It’s impossible.”

The pandemic lockdown created an impossible scenario for students in the country as they were unable to work, unable to return home and unable to claim state benefits but were still required to pay full tuition fees and rent.

French student, Cecilia Picaut, told delegates of the difficulties she faced and how necessity became the mother of invention in starting her own business.

“During Covid I was here. I wasn’t allowed to work because I wasn’t Australian. So I ended up without money, without food, and couldn’t pay my rent. You don’t have family and you are desperate.

“So my only solution was to start my own business. For me the surf community helped me through. I [became] the first sole trader in Queensland working as a mobile swim instructor with a holistic emphasis on mental health and physical wellbeing.”

Picaut has been widely praised for assisting many international students arriving on the Gold Coast who need to learn to swim.

After obtaining a skilled worker visa she has now received the welcome news of being granted permanent residency.

The determination and talent of the international students was not lost on the audience with each speaker receiving a round of applause in support.

Ingrid Davis, senior advisor for onshore international at the University of Canberra, said “the student roundtable is the best. The students were incredibly articulate and really highlighted some of the things we really need to look at.”

Ukrainian student Kate Dmytriieva, who is on a special visa because of the conflict in her home country, used the stage to thank the people of Australia for the support they have shown.

“Never in my life have I seen people who never met me before [who] helped me, they supported me and believed in me. I want to say thank you to my government, to Queensland, it’s been an amazing experience.”

Claudia Ortiz Reyes also spoke during the roundtable event. Photo: Thurtell Photography

One student however, brought the audience to silence as he explained why he wasn’t happy with his experience in Australia when so many of his peers were.

Hussain Akbar, a student originating from Pakistan, explained how rising global inflation had forced him to switch course despite his excellent grades.

Many of the panel discussions at the conference centred on the issue of students switching course in-country, with the assumption they want to do it once the visa has been secured with the aim of seeking out cheaper fees.

Hussain’s story however, put a new context into that decision-making in the light of global inflation and rising costs for families.

“Back in my country, the economic and political situation was so bad and inflation rose. Inflation rose and I had to start earning to pay my fees,” he said.

“I was really excited to study my bachelors degree here at a prestigious university but in the end I had to change my course into a diploma [to afford it].

“ I am disappointed because I got 7.5 in my IELTS and over 80% in my class [grades]. My friends have been studying other countries and I feel left behind because of all the change I’ve had [which was only related to finance].”

Similarly, Mikhail Eremeev, a postgraduate student from Russia, explained that he only chose his current course based on availability, affordability and his location at the time. In reality he had no interest in the subject long term but didn’t want to lose his ambition of working towards permanent residency.

“My only option was this master’s degree and there was only one university because it was the cheapest option and because my visa was expiring, it was necessary. My choice was [go] back to your country or stay here and study.”

Some of the students revealed that they had already invested up to AUS$200,000 in Australia and were not prepared to simply return home and give up on that investment.

In addition to the findings in the student roundtable, sponsors Scape have partnered with Year13, an Australian post-school advisory service to deliver the very first Gen Z Wellbeing Index.

The report focuses on the mental health, exercise, sleep and diet patterns of more than 1,000 young Australians and 900 Scape residents aged between 18 and 24 years. You can access the report here.

Are you a student studying in Australia? Have you been effected by any of the issues discussed here? If so, please feel free to contact 

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