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6th Sep 2023

Pandemic Event Visa scrapped as Australia continues overhaul of student visa policies

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The Australian “Pandemic Event” visa is being phased out and will cease to exist in February 2024
  • The visa, also known as the 408 visa, was designed to allow international students stranded in Australia when borders were closed due to COVID-19 to work to support themselves, but it remained active after borders opened as well
  • The cancellation of the controversial visa is one of several new immigration policies that affect international students
  • Record numbers of international students were granted study visas in July 2024, and international students are contributing more than ever to the Australian economy

Australia is continuing to tighten immigration policies and there are a number of implications for current and prospective international students. Most recently, Minister for Immigration Andrew Giles has announced that the so-called Pandemic Event Visa, a renewable 12-month document that has allowed students to work in any sector of the economy, is being phased out.

A pandemic-related visa that remained after borders reopened

The visa, also known as the 408 visa, was introduced to enable international students who were stranded in Australia due to COVID-19 travel restrictions to remain lawfully in the country and to support themselves by taking on paid employment. It was also intended to help address labour shortages in critical sectors of the Australian economy by allowing international students to access jobs for which they previously were not eligible.

More than 20,000 international students have used the 408 visa to work in Australia – and most of them have done so after the borders reopened at the end of 2021. In 2021, when borders were closed, only 3,000 students held the visa, according to Home Affairs data. In 2022, when borders were open and students were once again free to leave Australia, more than 17,000 students were granted a 408 visa.

The phasing-out process

As of 2 September 2023, immigration officials are no longer accepting applications for the visa, except from those students who currently hold them and are applying to renew them. Those students will only be able to receive a six-month visa and will need to pay a visa application charge of AUD$405.

Previously, there had been no application fee. The government explains that “these settings will ensure that the visa is only used by those who have a genuine need to remain and contribute to Australia.”

As of February 2024, the visa route will be permanently closed to all students.

Visa’s termination intended to help curb migration

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Labor government’s announcement of the visa’s phasing out blamed the previous Liberal government for the “mess” of the Australian migration system:

“Labor inherited a migration system with backlog after backlog, delays and endless waitlists. The Albanese Government hasn’t wasted a day in cleaning up the mess left by the former Liberal Government.

Under the Liberals, our migration system wasn’t working for anyone. There was no plan to deal with how the borders reopened. We’ve brought wait times down, and we’re working to make sure our migration system is working again for all Australians after a decade of mess and mismanagement under the Liberals.”

The end of the Pandemic Event visa, along with several other new immigration restrictions, is intended to put downward pressure on net migration. More than 400,000 people have migrated to Australia over the course of the past year (and 700,000 have since 2022), putting pressure on housing and job markets.

The closure of the 408 visa class will be welcomed by educators and industry stakeholders throughout Australia, many of whom had actively lobbied in recent months to have the programme shut down.

Speaking to The Australian earlier this year, 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 at the time, “We see this as a visa which is open to be exploited and outside the realm of supporting students with the purpose of study.”

More study, less work

Along with ending the 408 visa, the Australian government has also increased the amount of funds that international students must have to be eligible for a visa by 17%. Students must now prove they have AUD$24,505 in savings. The government says the increase is intended to ensure students have enough money to support their studies without working too many hours or working for exploitative employers.

International students’ in-study work hours are now also capped at 48 hours per fortnight. This is up from a pre-pandemic cap of 40 hours, but some students say the limit will force international students into dire financial straits because they can't earn enough income.

Record numbers of international students … and spending

At the end of July 2023, almost 655,000 people held temporary student visas allowing them to be in Australia, a 15% increase over the previous month and an all-time record. The previous peak was in 2019, when 634,000 students held student visas.

While the surge of students may be difficult for Australian housing markets to absorb, it is also injecting billions of dollars into the economy. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that in the March and June quarters of 2023, international students contributed more – through their spending – than ever before to the Australian economy.

For additional background, please see:

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