International students fared worse than most in Australia during the COVID restrictions, especially because they were excluded from the financial assistance offered to citizens and permanent residents in 2020. At the height of the pandemic, media outlets across Australia published stories of international students struggling to make ends meet. Yet these students were barely mentioned in the recent federal election campaign. There is a hidden assumption, with international education arrangements returning to ‘normal’, that action to address international student wellbeing is no longer necessary.
The problem with this assumption is that international student wellbeing was a problem well before the pandemic. Pre-pandemic policy did not meaningfully address the significant challenges faced by international students outside of the classroom setting. Policy solutions are eminently possible, and long overdue.
Pre-Pandemic: Challenges Faced by International Students Before COVID-19
Since the early 1990s, when Australia started accepting international students in large numbers, successive governments have chosen to allow market forces to determine services and supports for international students to receive. Policy-makers have left it to educational institutions to determine the level and the range of services offered to international students. All too often, this approach has allowed a vulnerable group to fall between the cracks.
International students are at increased risk of poor mental health compared to local students, and have long been so. A government-commissioned Orygen report, drawing on data collected immediately before COVID-19 reached Australia, found that the drivers of poor mental health among international students include isolation, high expectations and performance pressures, financial stress, precarious housing and employment, and experiences of discrimination and racism. Moreover, international students find it difficult to access services due to stigma, language barriers, and lack of knowledge concerning services available – for example, supports relating to employment, housing, education and health. The combination of stressors and inadequate assistance means that international students are often left to deal with challenges on their own, which can contribute to feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Concerningly, international students are significantly less likely to access mental health services than domestic students, and tend only to seek help when symptoms become debilitating. By the time they access support (if indeed it is available), they are often struggling with complex and serious mental disorders.
2020: The Shock of Lockdowns and the (Continuing) Pandemic
The global pandemic did not create an international student mental health crisis, but it did expose and exacerbate existing fault-lines in Australia’s approach to international education.
On the 3rd of April 2020, as the nation locked-down during the first wave of COVID infections, (then) Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that international students would be excluded from the pandemic-related financial assistance measures offered to Australian permanent residents and citizens. Some higher education institutions stepped-up to offer assistance, but the supports offered were generally limited. This risk-aversion was in part a consequence of an anticipated drop in revenues as many international students left the country. For public universities (which is almost all of them), being excluded from the JobKeeper subsidy heightened financial concerns. Universities could only surmise that their finances were imperilled. Some commentators estimate that there have been 40,000 job losses in the sector since 2020.
Local NGOs and State Governments offered ad hoc packages to international students during the 2020 lockdown. This included food vouchers and parcels, and free legal and other services. But the services and financial assistance offered were not systematic or ongoing. To add to the uncertainty, classes were temporarily moved exclusively online. This exacerbated the sense of social exclusion that many international students already felt.
The impacts of these stressors on international students’ mental and general wellbeing were significant. A 2020 study by Alan Morris and colleagues found that ‘loneliness’ among international students doubled between 2019 and 2020, with 61 percent of those surveyed reporting feelings of loneliness during the main 2020 lockdown. Twenty-eight percent of survey respondents indicated that they were at least ‘somewhat worried’ about losing their accommodation, while 46 percent said that this fear was having an impact on their studies. Only 26 percent of students said that their landlord or real estate agent was ‘sympathetic’ to their situation. Almost half (45 percent) had to borrow money from friends or family, and 29 percent went without meals. Twenty-five percent pawned or sold something to pay for basic life expenses.
An international study conducted by Sarah Van de Velde and colleagues around the same time found that the students most at risk of depression during the pandemic were those from migrant backgrounds, those with few social supports, and those experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage. In 2020, international students were more fitting of this description than they had ever been. A survey of Australian university students during the first wave of the pandemic found similarly, that 65 percent of students were experiencing low or very low wellbeing. International students fared particularly badly, reporting significantly higher future anxiety and accessing more pandemic-related supports than local students.
2021: The Seeds of Hope
Educational instruction in Australia remained mainly online during 2021, and there were longer lockdowns during the second half of the year. But the situation began to improve for many. International students were finally able to access Disaster Payments, which helped to alleviate financial stress. Vaccines were also developed overseas, and enough were eventually purchased by the Australian government to cover the Australian population. Vaccination rates increased rapidly, and by October public health restrictions began to ease. Overseas-based international students were not yet allowed to return to Australia, but by December, some were returning in small-scale trials.
While the crisis thus appeared to be almost over, distress levels remained high. Students who had stayed in Australia and had to self-isolate during lockdowns, reported high levels of loneliness, COVID-19 related stress, and insomnia. International students locked outside Australia by border closures also struggled. A 2021 survey of those students by the Council of International Students Australia (CISA) found that almost half were facing financial stress as they continued to pay bills and cover the costs of storing their belongings in Australia. Worryingly, 30 percent of them reported thoughts of self-harm, and 27 percent reported clinically diagnosed anxiety or depression.
2022: Back Where We Began?
As of Semester 1 in 2022, Australia’s borders have been fully open to international students, although some are still studying remotely and living overseas. There is optimism across the higher education sector, as well as among students, that borders will remain open so that life and work can continue uninterrupted. However, entrenched legacy issues concerning international student wellbeing remain, and there is a pressing need for the new Albanese ALP Government to tackle them. The challenges include the propensity to view international students as a source of revenue, while ignoring their material and psychological needs.
The Morrison Coalition Government’s International Education Strategy did make mention of “mental health and wellbeing issues” among international students. Notably, the Strategy also foreshadowed a review of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act and the National Code of Practice for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students. As it currently stands, the ‘ESOS Framework’ (as these documents are called in combination) acknowledges the importance of support services to underwrite student wellbeing, but it does not compel the Government or educational institutions to actually provide services to international students. Instead, information provision on services is all that is required.
Under ‘support services’, Standard 6 of the Code states that institutions “must support the overseas student in adjusting to study and life in Australia by giving the overseas student information on or access to an age and culturally appropriate orientation program that provides information about” a range of services. Specifically, the Code mentions “English language and study assistance programs”; “legal services”; “the registered provider’s facilities and resources”; “student complaints and appeals processes”; “requirements for course attendance and progress”; any factors “adversely affecting’ individual students” education; and “employment rights and conditions” for students who are employed casually or part-time in Australia. In addition, institutions must have “critical incident policies” in place for all students. However – with the exception of students under 18-years-old, where there are more specific terms – there is little detail on the Government and/or institution’s substantive responsibilities for the material living conditions of international students. In essence, the ESOS Framework does little to ensure international students have access to the basic services and resources they need to maintain wellbeing.
The pandemic brought the human costs of Australia’s approach to international education into sharp relief, but the problems faced by international students are more longstanding. International students deserve the improved life-chances that would emanate from meaningful structural and policy reform.