International student body’s alarm at Shorten’s stance on work visas

Australia’s peak international student body has warned Bill Shorten against curbing their work rights after the Opposition Leader attacked the “out of control increase” in temporary work visas, which is predominantly driven by surging student numbers.

Citizenship Minister Alan Tudge yesterday called on Mr Shorten to reveal his plans for the $32 billion international education sector, which employs 130,000 Australians.

Mr Shorten this week said the number of migrants on temporary work visas had “blown out to 1.6 million” under the Coalition.

Figures provided to The Australian reveal 90 per cent of the rise in temporary visa numbers was due to international students, who can work up to 20 hours a week.

Labor immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann yesterday moved to reassure the “incredibly important” education sector that Labor would not seek to wind back overseas student numbers, but called on the federal government to strictly enforce student visa conditions.

“International education is one of Australia’s biggest exports but the government needs to make sure international students studying in Australia abide by the conditions of their visa, including work restrictions,” Mr Neumann said.

The Council of International Students Australia said overseas students had heavy financial burdens and were often exploited by unscrupulous employers.

CISA president Bijay Sapkota said any move to limit students’ working hours while studying, or while on post-study visas, would have a negative impact on the international education sector.

“Many of these students come from countries with low socio-economic backgrounds to get skills to become globally competitive in countries with higher salaries,” he said.

“If Australia fails to allow them to work, and to acknowledge their skills, then it might not have a good impact on the reputation of the Australian education system.”

There are currently 1.55 million holders of temporary visas with work rights, up from 1.36 million in 2013. The biggest holders of temporary work visas are New Zealanders, with more than 673,000 in the system at June 30 this year.

But according to the official Department of Home Affairs figures, the majority of growth in temporary workers has been due to the rise in student visa numbers, which rose from 304,000 in 2013 to 486,000 last month.

“Nearly all growth in short-term visas since we came to government has been in international students who are eligible to work 20 hours a week,’’ Mr Tudge said. “Is Bill Shorten really saying he wants to cut the international student numbers who contribute $32bn to Australia? If so, he should come clean on this.”

Mr Neumann said international education was “an incredibly important contributor” to the nation’s economy.

He also called for the government to better protect overseas students from workplace exploitation, amid reports of students being underpaid and forced to work outside their visa conditions.

“The failure of the out-of-touch Turnbull government to protect some of the most vulnerable workers undercuts pay and conditions for all workers in Australia and undermines the integrity of Australia’s migration program,” Mr Neumann said.

International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood said any move to disrupt the sector would have serious economic consequences. “Australia has carefully examined both international students’ needs and the policy settings of competitor destination countries,” he said. “International education is our third biggest industry after iron ore and coal, and it has really been the quiet achiever for Australia’s economic growth over the past decade.”