Melbourne City Council pledges financial support for foreign students

Melbourne City Council has become the first local authority in Australia to pledge financial support for international students amid fears that they are falling through the cracks because they are not eligible for government welfare.

Although a figure has not been set, councillors have asked staff to develop ways to financially support overseas students, many of whom have lost casual jobs in retail and hospitality as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are about 200,000 overses students in Melbourne.Credit:Joe Armao

They have also backed calls by the International Education Association of Australia for a national hardship fund for foreign students, which could take contributions from the council, other levels of government, universities and the private sector.

On Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told international students and other temporary visa holders to return to their home countries if they could not support themselves.

His comments were echoed on Saturday by acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge, who said it was time for overseas students to go home “as quickly as possible”.

The council is taking a different stance.

“Contrary to reports from other levels of government, not only do we welcome international students to our city, but we hope that they remain here with us in our comparatively safe country during these dangerous times,” Cr Jackie Watts said.

She said the Prime Minister’s comments were “clearly counter-productive on a number of levels”.

“The alarm and anxiety amongst international students is real and growing and they need reassurance that we value them and are endeavouring to keep them safe with us in Melbourne,” Cr Watts said.

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

International education is the state’s biggest export earner, contributing $12 billion to the Victorian economy last year.

International students are allowed to work up to 20 hours a week but many have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 shutdown and are not eligible for government welfare or the new JobSeeker and JobKeeper schemes.

“It’s an appalling way to treat people who have made a considerable investment in our economy,” said the association's chief executive Phil Honeywood.

By contrast, he said New Zealand had allowed international students access to the equivalent of their JobKeeper scheme, provided them with free health services and automatically extended student visas until December.

“We are not in the ballpark when it comes to showing humanity and support for these young people.”

He said international students were not able to return home in many cases because flights to their country had been grounded or the cost was prohibitively high.

“We are going to have a situation in the next couple of weeks in the absence of any support where we will have footage of international students in the streets,” Mr Honeywood said.

“I congratulate Melbourne City Council on being the first local government in Australia to commit to this vital issue.”

The council also agreed to establish a free resume checking service for international students, deliver programs to international students online and match international students affected by the pandemic with local start-ups.

Cr Nicholas Reece said that while he believed comments by public figures that international students should go home were a “misstatement”, which had created genuine worry for students who were already doing it tough.

“They were a punch on a bruise for the international students of Melbourne,” he said.

"[The] City of Melbourne is the first government in Australia to pledge support for a hardship fund for international students and we have asked officers for urgent advice on what form that takes.

“This is a wholehearted declaration we love international students, they are very welcome, we welcome them with open arms.”

If you or anyone you know needs support call Lifeline 131 114, or beyondblue 1300 224 636.

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