Remove study placements from Australia’s work hour cap, say universities

Published 26/01/2023

Education providers in Australia have largely welcomed the government’s decision to reinstate the cap on working hours for international students, but argue that study-related work experience should not count towards the limit.

The amount of hours that international students in the country are permitted to work is set to be capped once again from 30 June 2023, after the 40 hour fortnightly limit was lifted in January last year. It has not yet been announced how many hours students will be able to work once the policy returns.

In submissions to a parliamentary inquiry in December, many universities welcomed the change with the Group of Eight saying unlimited work hours “has the potential to distract students from their studies and has been linked to a rise in non-genuine student visa applications”.

“It is also critical that Australia actively works to maintain its enviable reputation for quality and not allow international student talent to become perceived as a proxy migrant workforce,” the organisation wrote.

Bond University echoed this, saying that Australian education is becoming “an easy target for non-genuine students”, while Navitas said that “unscrupulous providers and agents” are exploiting the policy. Both Bond University and Victoria TAFE also said that the policy is impacting course completion rates.

But the University of Adelaide and UNSW Sydney urged the government to maintain unrestricted work hours.

“The amendment of international student work hour allowance during the Covid-19 pandemic not only provided much needed financial support to international students but also kept several domestic businesses afloat,” UNSW wrote, adding that the policy is “mutually beneficial” for businesses and students.

Other education bodies expressed concern that unlimited work hours are driving exploitation, after Australian newspaper The Age reported that some colleges were supporting foreign workers to enter the sex industry.

“Recent media attention has exposed the role some private for-profit institutions are playing in facilitating exploitation of students – charging low student fees and turning a blind eye to student non-attendance at classes,” wrote Victoria TAFE. “This behaviour has been fuelled by uncapping of work hours for international students.”

The National Tertiary Education Union said that unlimited work hours would “make these visas even more attractive to individuals and organisations involved in labour trafficking”.

“These factors make international student workers susceptible to exploitation by employers”

The trade union noted that international students are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, regardless of a limit on work hours, as their visas are subject to less employment regulation in general.

“These factors make international student workers susceptible to exploitation by employers, with underpayment, wage theft, bullying, harassment, and labour trafficking all potential risks,” said NTEU.

A number of educators also questioned how the policy applies to study-related work experience, with RMIT calling for “greater clarity” around how course placements, particularly unpaid ones, impact work hours.

Under the previous policy, only mandatory work placements did not count towards the 40 hours, but any other jobs were counted, including unpaid roles and work experience as part of electives.

Griffith University recommended that non-compulsory work-integrated learning should not count towards the total number of permitted work hours for those on student visas, arguing that the policy creates an “unnecessary barrier for international students in obtaining relevant work experience and connecting with potential employers”. The University of Melbourne also said that an exemption should be granted for students taking internship subjects as electives.

“Decisions of this nature are entirely a matter for government”

Universities Australia suggested that the fortnightly limit should only apply to paid work hours, but the organisation stopped short of commenting specifically on whether or not it supported the removal of limited work hours.

“Lifting the cap on set working hours for international students was always intended to be a temporary measure to help address workforce shortages,” Universities Australia acting chief executive Peter Chesworth told The PIE. “Decisions of this nature are entirely a matter for government.

“The cap on working hours has served universities and international students well, allowing them to balance paid work with their studies without jeopardising valuable study time.

“We will continue to work closely with the government, through the review of Australia’s migration system and other forums, to ensure universities can continue to serve Australia’s interests.”

Canada also temporarily removed restrictions on work hours for international students in November 2022 in a bid to address the country’s labour shortages. The move was hotly debated by the sector.

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