Council backs greater student help

By David Schout

The City of Melbourne has urged greater support for the 52,000 international students who live or study within the CBD amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

With many students now jobless and unable to fly home or access federal income support, the council recognised the “urgent” need for a national hardship fund. 

And as student fees and living costs continue to mount, Lord Mayor Sally Capp said Town Hall needed to take a stand.

“At this time when we keep saying ‘we’re in this together’, then we need to show that we really are, not just to those who are the most important or prevalent but to those who need care,” she said.

“For every international student, for all their parents and families, we need to be saying very clearly that we feel a responsibility to them in our city … you belong, you are deserving and we do care.”

In asking for a response from higher levels of government, the council too has pledged financial assistance, although that amount (at the time of publishing) was yet to be determined.

Cr Capp said foreign students defined Melbourne’s brand and identity, and especially paid tribute to those playing important roles in the fight against COVID-19 as researchers, student nurses, intern doctors and volunteers in hospitals.

The Lord Mayor called out the racist attack on two students at the Queen Victoria Market in April as “completely unacceptable” and something that “does not reflect the values that Melburnians stand for” (see full story on page 3). 

More than 200,000 international students from 170 countries live in Melbourne, including 52,000 international students who live or study in the central city.

The sector generated nearly $12 billion for Victoria in 2019 – by far the state’s biggest export.

Shortly after the council called for greater student support at the April 7 council meeting, the Andrews Government announced international students would be eligible to register for the Working for Victoria program. which assists those who have lost work due to the pandemic. 

Cr Nicholas Reece, a Principal Fellow at the University of Melbourne, underlined the importance of work to support studies. 

“As we have rapidly learned, it (COVID-19) is hitting some groups – in particular international students – particularly hard. Many students who come to Australia to study take up work to support themselves and their studies, but with the collapse in the employment market at the moment, many international students are finding themselves without work, without income, and at the same time unable to access the social welfare safety net.”

In April, Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested students in this situation should “return home”.

Cr Reece likened the comments, irrespective of their intention, to “a punch on a bruise” while Cr Cathy Oke – another University of Melbourne employee – said they had caused “concern and alarm” among colleagues at the University of Melbourne.

The Council of International Students Australia (CISA) said the comments were disheartening.

“Due to lockdown enforcement in many countries, lots of international students are not able to (go home) at the moment, leaving them struggling every day,” it said in a statement.

“It is disappointing to see international students being disregarded. There is a lot beyond monetary matters that needs to be considered and addressed which should not be shrugged away.”

The City of Melbourne said it would continue to work with Study Melbourne, the lead agency in delivering online support for international students.

It also pledged to investigate setting up:

  • free resume-checking;
  • increased opportunities for students to connect online;
  • expanding communications with international students; and
  • delivering a special edition of the NexStar internship program.

Speaking at the City of Melbourne’s virtual business summit on April 16, vice-chancellor at the University of Melbourne Duncan Maskell outlined how severe the impact of COVID-19 had been on universities. 

“We have a unique model in that we totally rely on student enrolment as our main revenue source,” he said. “Over the last few years, that has gone into international students in a big way. So, the current travel restrictions are hitting us very hard.”

“It is likely to have a long-term effect on us. In fact, the prediction is that, nationally, there will be a decline in reversal revenues of between 3.5-$4 billion over the rest of the year. A significant amount of money.”

City of Melbourne CEO Justin Hanney said council would continue to work with the university sector to support  international students. 

“The city has set out a number of task forces to do with issues such as the welfare of the elderly, the most at risk,” he said. 

“We know we have got an increase in international students using the food relief services and there are more things to work on there.” •

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