International Students in Australia Left in Limbo

The pandemic has locked university students out of campuses, thrown many out of their jobs and kept them confined to their homes for most of the year.

International students have been hit harder than most, ineligible for government financial support, suffering from social isolation and lacking support networks.

Mixed emotions: Naman Shama left India for Australia in February, then COVID hit.

Harish Kansal arrived in Melbourne from India on February 19 this year just before COVID-19 hit.

He had hoped to gain a postgraduate qualification, meet new friends and immerse himself in Australian culture and lifestyle.

Instead, Mr Kansal has spent most of the year in his bedroom living an entirely online existence.

“This is the toughest time in life one can face,” he said.

Mr Kansal, who is on a Subclass 500 Student Visa, (a student visa allowing up to five years’ study in Australia), came to Melbourne after completing a Bachelor of Commerce at Punjab Technical University in India.

He enrolled in a Master of Business Information Systems at Swinburne University. This two-year course costs international students $52,000.

He did approximately four weeks of on-campus learning before COVID-19 plunged Victoria into lockdown and turned his life upside down. He lost his casual job and was forced to study online.

“Since I lost my job I have tried and tried to get another one, but there are none. I don’t have any income,” Mr Kumar said.

Social isolation is making settling into his new country impossible.

“I don’t have any local friends — you can’t meet new friends on social media. It’s really stressful. Lockdown changed everything.”

Studying online is problematic for Mr Kansal, especially because English isn’t his first language.

“Online study is not even close to face-to-face learning. Face-to-face you can ask classmates or the teacher for help, but you can’t do that online”, Mr Kumar said.

If you’re an international student and you are in financial stress there are very few options available.

Mr Kansal has been told that if he applies for an extension of up to a month to pay next semester’s fees, he must pay interest on it.

But Vivian Allard, Director of Student Support and Wellbeing at Swinburne university, says they are reviewing international students’ circumstances on a case-by-case basis.

“Students can contact Swinburne if they are in financial difficulty and we have set up a Student Emergency Fund to assist students who are struggling.

We have International Student Advisers and a dedicated fees team who work closely with our international students.

The International Student Emergency Relief Fund is a government fund that has assisted many international students. Swinburne has also set up its own Student Emergency Fund for students who need financial support”, Ms Allard said.

Swinburne is up to phase 4 of their Student Emergency Fund. In phase 1 the fund paid up to $1,000, phase 2, $500, phase 3, $550 and phase 4, $450.

To date, despite being in severe financial hardship, Mr Kansal has not been successful in his application for the Victorian government’s International Student Emergency Relief Fund.

In May, the Victorian government opened the international student emergency relief fund which provides a one-off payment of $1,100 to be delivered via tertiary education providers.

But only 25% of international students have accessed it.

A Victorian Government spokesperson, said that as of October, just over 30,000 international students have been supported by the International Student Emergency Relief Fund, out of a total of 119,000 international students enrolled in Victorian education providers.

Mr Kansal applied for this fund but he was rejected, despite being in severe financial difficulty.

Mr Kansal ran into problems when he requested paperwork from his former employer who refused to provide the documentation.

Not paying university fees has dire consequences for international students — it means they can lose their Confirmation of Enrolment documentation. Without it, the student can be deported.

Mr Kansal’s future is uncertain. “Somehow, I managed to pay this semester’s fees, but I don’t know how I will be able to complete this course.”

Mr Kansal can’t afford to think too far into the future. He’s unable to share his anguish with family back home because they too are experiencing hardship caused by the pandemic.

“We can’t share everything with our families because it will make them feel depressed — even if we go to bed with empty stomachs.”

“Just pure happiness” Ms Sharma got to visit Monash Caulfield campus only once.

Naman Vijay Sharma arrived in Melbourne from her home town of Mumbai in late February to begin studying for a Master of Journalism. Her course costs more than $69,400.

She arrived full of optimism and excitement about meeting new people and exploring a new city. Within a month, the pandemic shut everything down before Ms Sharma could set foot on campus for her classes.

“It has been a complete disaster for me,” she said. “I’ve not been able to go out at all and make new friends because I’ve been locked inside my apartment on my own. You can’t make friends on instagram or text. The mental health toll is the biggest toll on me.”

Ms Sharma says she hasn’t enjoyed studying online.

“How can you feed off the energy from other people online? I would love to be sitting in a room with these people. These are the brightest minds I’m sharing classes with, but we lose the ability to connect with each other when learning this way.”

Being so far away from her family and friends in India is hard.

“Initially when I came to Australia I was homesick and consoled myself, saying ‘You can always take a flight back whenever you need to.’ But the uncertainty of not knowing when I can go back is very stressful; it’s the worst feeling”, Ms Sharma said.

There is a glimmer of hope for Ms Sharma. Despite the mental stress taking a toll on her, the financial stress has been alleviated by the support of Monash University.

“Monash was brilliant. I survived because of their support, especially when they assisted me with a grant to continue my studies. I am now doing a double Masters in Journalism and International Relations thanks to their help.”

Even though the financial support from Monash has been a lifeline, Ms Sharma isn’t sure what her future holds.

“I am supposed to be in Australia to study for two and a half years, but now my future is uncertain. I’m not sure if I will be able to stay in Australia”, she said.

Kashan Javed Qureshi, 20, has headed back home to Pakistan after arriving in Australia to study earlier this year.

Kashan Javed Qureshi was excited about studying for a Bachelor of Engineering in Australia in 2020. It was to be a huge adventure for him.

The adventure turned out to be a very different one.

Like Ms Sharma and Mr Kumar, Mr Qureshi arrived in Melbourne in February and within weeks the world had turned upside down. He was told his engineering studies would be going completely online.

Hearing this news was devastating.

“Paying this much money for online study is a waste”, he said.

The four-year degree will cost Mr Qureshi $184,000 AUD.

He decided to defer until second semester in the hope that restrictions would ease by then and on-campus learning would return.

As he waited out the first lockdown, life was “pretty difficult.” The second lockdown was even worse. He decided to begin his degree in second semester.

Studying engineering online hasn’t worked well.

“The communication gap is the main problem…it’s a major drawback. The online practicals are not even 50% as productive as face-to-face practicals.

The tuition fees should have been reduced. It’s not value for money at all”, he said.

Some of Mr Qureshi’s friends have been doing it much tougher than he has.

“My housemate was going through mental stress due to lockdown. He lost his job, which was a financial burden to him. He was too scared to tell his parents.

One day he collapsed due to extreme stress and we had to get him to hospital, where he stayed for a week. When he got back, me and my friends helped to pay his rent and bills” said Mr Qureshi.

Feeling hemmed in by the lockdown and with the uncertainty about when face-to-face learning would return, Mr Qureshi decided to take the opportunity, when it arose, to fly back to his family in Pakistan.

He has continued his studies remotely from there.

Mr Qureshi is hoping he can come back to Australia and complete his Bachelor of Engineering face-to-face. It depends on when that happens.

“I’m not sure if I can continue with it at present — definitely not if the only option is online.”

Link to published version in Mojo News:

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