SYDNEY - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been urged to extend assistance to more than 500,000 international students who had remained in the country amid a coronavirus lockdown, including many who have lost their jobs and are struggling to pay their rent, fees and bills.
Australia's shutdown of the economy following the Covid-19 outbreak has taken a heavy toll on these students. Many work in the hard-hit retail or hospitality sectors and have lost their jobs or had their hours or pay cut.
But Mr Morrison has refused to let them access schemes, worth about A$150 billion (S$133 billion), that subsidise worker wages and increase welfare payments.
Instead, he urged all struggling students to go home.
Also, before arriving in Australia, students must promise they have the means to support themselves for their first 12 months of study, he added.
"If they're not in a position to be able to support themselves, then there is the alternative for them to return to their home countries," he said.
"Our focus and our priority is on supporting Australians and Australian residents with the economic supports that are available."
Australia's booming international student sector brought in about A$39 billion last year and was the fourth-largest export behind coal, iron ore and natural gas.
Last year, Australia received 758,154 such students, three-quarters of whom studied at universities or vocational colleges.
The largest sources were China, which accounted for 30 per cent of students, and India, 13 per cent. About 8,000 Singaporeans studied in Australia last year.
The International Education Association of Australia has warned that failure by the federal government to help students during the pandemic may jeopardise the country's reputation and dissuade students from coming in future.
The association has called for the creation of a hardship fund to help struggling students pay for their tuition, accommodation and meals.
"We can't take A$39 billion a year off those students and not expect to give something back in an unprecedented crisis such as this," the association's chief executive, Mr Phil Honeywood, told The Sydney Morning Herald.
"If we don't do something for those in need now, our reputation as a safe, welcoming, studying destination could be compromised for all time."
Universities in Australia have become increasingly dependent on fees from international students. Since the coronavirus outbreak, some universities have offered fee discounts and allowed late starts or deferrals.
Most of these students are allowed to work up to 20 hours a week. The government is letting them access their pension savings but many are on low pay and may not have much.
An expert on higher education, Professor Andrew Norton of Australian National University, said universities risked financial ruin if large numbers of international students were forced to leave Australia or end their studies.
He said the government should allow these students to be eligible for its new wage subsidies, which effectively pay employers A$1,500 a fortnight to retain staff.
"(International students) lack the local family and social security back-ups of domestic students," he wrote on his blog.
"If international students have to go home or cannot pay their fees, that is the most likely trigger for a broader higher education sector crisis."
A 24-year-old international student in Brisbane, Ms Daniela Maza from El Salvador, said she and her fellow students had lost their jobs and were sharing food and accommodation.
"I've never been faced with a situation where I have to choose whether I pay for my rent or I pay for my food," she told ABC News.
"I really hope that Australians that have been stranded overseas… don't get treated as we're getting treated today."
Universities have been offering hardship payments and other support to students - both international and local - who have lost their jobs.
Some are offering grants of as much as A$7,500 or immediate loans or emergency payments for students who urgently need food and basic supplies.
On Wednesday (April 8), Melbourne's city council promised financial support for struggling international students. About 52,000 foreign students live or study in this central city.
A councillor, Ms Jackie Watts, told The Age: "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."