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Australian educators call for an end to pandemic work visa

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Highlighting an apparent conflict between government policy to boost the country’s labour force and the integrity of the student visa system, educators in Australia are calling for an end to a COVID-era work visa
  • Under the current program, any student with a visa expiring in 90 days or less can apply to transition to a 12-month work visa

National media reports in Australia are highlighting concerns among peak bodies in the country’s international education sector with respect to a COVID-era visa class.

Technically known as the Temporary Activity visa (subclass 408), and, informally, the pandemic event work visa, the visa was initially introduced with two goals. On the one hand, to provide relief for foreign students in Australia who were unable to depart the country during COVID-related border closures. The visa was also designed to boost employment in critical sectors during the pandemic, including agriculture, food processing, and health care. It allowed students to stay and work in Australia for up to 12 months.

In March 2022, the Department of Home Affairs announced that the pandemic event work visa would be extended, in large part to relieve labour market demand throughout the Australian economy. It remains in place today and allows eligible students to stay in Australia to work for up to 12 months in any sector of the economy.

Visa eligibility has been similarly expanded. With border restrictions now a thing of the past, students are no longer eligible for the visa on the grounds that they are unable to depart Australia due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, any student with a valid student visa may apply if their visa is expiring in 90 days or less.

This sets up a loophole that has seen students on expiring or short-term study visas transitioning to a pandemic event work visa – in effect, to suspend their studies in favour of a work period of up to one year.

A recent item in The Australian sums up the issue concisely: “The 408 visa offers an easy route to legally work in Australia. The first step is to obtain a student visa for an English-language course, which can be as short as three months’ duration. Then, if a student is in Australia on a three-month student visa, they can almost immediately apply at no cost for a 408 pandemic event visa.”

Speaking to the newspaper, IEAA Chief Executive Phil Honeywood said, “International education stakeholders are surprised that this special temporary visa is still in place. Insofar as it offers a free full-time work visa it is open to abuse, and representations are being made to have this visa sub class abolished as soon as possible.”

English Australia CEO Brett Blacker concurred, and added, “We see this as a visa which is open to be exploited and outside the realm of supporting students with the purpose of study.”

The industry’s position comes to light at a time when there are increasing questions about how expanded work rights are affecting student decision-making in Australia. Along with the pandemic event work visa, the government had also previously removed caps on working hours for students. This has led, some have suggested, to greater numbers of students transferring from universities to private colleges or language centres with the goal of taking better advantage of uncapped work hours.

The window for doing so will come to a close on 1 July 2023, at which point the government will re-introduce limits on the number of hours international students can work while studying. However, the new cap of 48 hours every two weeks will still be higher than the previous limit of 40 hours every fortnight.

Note thought that this cap applies only to students on a student visa. There are no such caps or other changes currently anticipated for the pandemic event work visa.

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