The pros and cons of capping work hours for international students in Australia

After more than a year of granting unlimited work hours for international students, the Australian government is set to reinstate the work hour cap on 30 June 2023. 


The government’s decision to remove the cap in January of 2022 was a temporary measure to address the country’s labour shortage, in turn driving significant growth in the number of international students in Australia. But while the cap removal was able to attract more students to the country, different education providers have mixed points of view on how beneficial this move truly was for the overall education industry. 


What worked?

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney argues that lifting the work hour cap helped international students support themselves while also supporting the country’s economy.


“The amendment of international student work hour allowance during the Covid-19 pandemic not only provided much needed financial support to international students but also kept several domestic businesses afloat,” the institution wrote in a statement. 


Hence, alongside the University of Adelaide, UNSW Sydney is urging the government to maintain unrestricted work hours for the sake of both the students and domestic businesses.


What didn’t?

On the other hand, however, it seems that more Australian education providers have reasons to believe that reinstating the cap is the right decision to make. Different institutions were able to point out different consequences that resulted from permitting unlimited work hours:

  • Rise in non-genuine student visa applications and decline in course completions — In submissions to a parliamentary inquiry in December, the Group of Eight said that allowing unlimited work hours “has the potential to distract students from their studies.” To their point, the removal of the work hour cap  has been linked to a rise in non-genuine student visa applications. Bond University and Victoria TAFE also said that the policy has impacted course completion rates. 
  • Diminishing the country’s reputation for quality education – Group of Eight also expressed that Australia should “maintain its enviable reputation for quality and not allow international student talent to become perceived as a proxy migrant workforce.” Sharing the same sentiment, Bond University said that Australian education is becoming “an easy target for non-genuine students.”
  • Growing cases of exploitation and labour trafficking – After Australian newspaper The Age reported that some colleges were supporting foreign workers to enter the sex industry, other education bodies expressed concern that unlimited work hours are driving exploitation. The National Tertiary Education Union noted that international students are already vulnerable to exploitation because their visas are subject to less employment regulation, but the unlimited work hours made these visas “even more attractive to individuals and organisations involved in labour trafficking”. 


Study-related work experience should be excluded from the work hour cap

There are several serious hazards that come with letting international students work unlimited hours. But what will reinstating the work hour cap mean for international students who genuinely want to gain relevant work experience and expand their network?


While many universities and education bodies seem to be in favour of the cap’s reinstatement, they also believe that exemptions should be made for study-related work experiences. Griffith University, for instance, recommends that non-compulsory work-integrated learning shouldn’t count towards the total number of permitted work hours, as this would be an “unnecessary barrier for international students in obtaining relevant work experience and connecting with potential employers”. The University of Melbourne also said that exemptions should be granted for students with internship subjects as electives. 


The Australian government’s decision on whether to implement unlimited work hours or not will require careful consideration to balance the needs of international students while addressing the labour shortage in the country. Ensuring that international students’ health and wellbeing must be a priority in Australia to allow them the best possible environment to succeed and fill the skills gap while contributing to a diverse and dynamic labour workforce.

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