Background International Students

A new chapter for Sydney & international students

Prepared by Organising team, David Barrow & Diana Olmos, & Nirmal Joy, Sydney Community Forum

COVID-19 has revealed the very worst of the precariousness and exploitation that international students have faced in Sydney for a long time. As the centre of Australia’s international education “market”, Sydney’s universities and private education providers have been expanding their businesses toward international students for over 30 years.

Successive governments, both Labor and Coalition have failed to regulate the private-VET sector. Voluntary student unionism and the move to online learning and market models of universities have meant that students experience dislocation, loneliness and exploitation as their peers in private VET… and this was all before COVID-19. 

The experience of Sydney and international students is an expression of market values, not civic ones. On the surface international education is talked about as “educating the world” and “cross cultural experience”, but the reality is that many international students are highly isolated and never have the opportunity to develop deep relationships with locals by the end of their studies, and face systematic injustice in all fields of their life. This system makes them more susceptible to exploitation, and has created an ‘underclass’ of people who live, work and study in Australia, but don’t have the same rights.

Pressures magnified by COVID
Limited regulation on the quality of degrees and certificates and exorbitant fees. Highlighted by COVID-19 where students are receiving substandard quality education online and a lack of reimbursements for fees paid. In most cases, students are still paying for materials and practical classes that they are not currently receiving. After reviewing many students’ contracts, the Redfern Legal Centre have found that the law protects education providers providing short capacity for international students to appeal for reviews and considerations. On top of that, the current financial capacity of students to pay a lawyer to go to court is null.

Systemic wage theft, cash-in-hand, sexual assault and lack of OHS in a wide variety of non-unionised and small workplaces. Poor standards of work and life as deliveroo bike riders and other shonky contracting operations that have exploited the government’s failure to regulate new technologies impact on work. Highlighted by COVID-19 as students have lost their jobs, forcing them into more precarious ways of earning money, including a growing number of cases of ad-hoc sex work. According to a research conducted by the UNSW and UTS based on a survey of over 5000 international students last year, have found that 77% of international students were paid below the minimum casual hourly wage.

Almost half of respondents (48%) who experienced a problem at work indicated that they did not even seek information because they feared they would lose their job.

Overcrowding is rampart as students try to afford to live in Sydney. Even NSW’s weak rental protections are virtually unknown by most students. This leads to a lack of personal space, which while a boon for the city’s libraries, comes hand in hand with unsafe overcrowding (both in terms of fire standards and now COVID-19) and mental health. Landlords who exploit this situation abound. COVID-19 has highlighted these inequalities by students feeling unable to negotiate with their landlord on the moratorium and continued overcrowding.

Discrimination & Racism:
Many students’ feel that they are looked down upon and invisible to locals. Often the brightest students at home, many have reported experiences of being treated appallingly. Direct and indirect racism has been a feature of many students’ experience.

Brings these issues together and adds the challenge of food insecurity and the cost of health care. The Prime Minister’s statement to “Go Home” was hurtful as many students would have had to jettison the massive fees they had already paid to education providers, not to mention the actual costs of relocation, flights and that 130 countries still have their borders closed making impossible for students to return.

A system view:

These conditions effect all of us in ways both subtle and overt. In the labour market, the exploitative practices on international students and other temporary migrants allows the bottom to fall out of wages and conditions, effecting workers ability to organise effectively. Parallels with the treatment and exploitation of undocumented workers in the UK and US are apt.

Educations providers, including universities and increasingly revenue focused TAFEs, have highly casualised workforces. Teachers, instructors and administrative staff rarely have job security; gig work and short term contracts abound. Overworked casual staff don’t have the time, energy or remit in many of these institutions to have the conversations with students about the exploitative practices that they face; particularly given that there can be a very wide gap between cultures on issues concerning power, shame, solving problems and fair treatment.

Moreover, the complicity of Australians in allowing such practices to go on as an ‘open secret’ perpetuates deep cultural prejudices on race about who has value in our society and who is visible.

For those students who return home, we can also consider the impact to Australia’s reputation of so many students returning home with these experiences of hurt and isolation. If nothing else, the failure to create a positive, transformative experience of Australian civil society is a missed opportunity for future warm and productive foreign relations and trade, given how many students from Australian institutions return to positions of influence in their home countries.

Many students stay and become residents and citizens. One particularly cynical analysis of the private education market is that it exists as a feature of the skilled migration program - through the bestowing of necessary credentials for permanent residency through various visa programs, private education providers are “taking the cream” off the top as students make their way through. Whether this is by intentional design or has simply evolved that way, many businesses are now invested in the system as it is.

At Foundations Training we teach the “three spheres”; market, government and civil society. Since the 1970s the market has grown as has its influence on government. The market sector includes universities, private education, landlords and businesses taking advantage of cheap labour. The government includes insufficiently funded ombudsmen and regulators of workplaces, education and rental rights. The migration program sits at the cross over between government and market. Meanwhile civil society has some cross over with the market with schools and colleges. Attempts by civil society organisations to mitigate the pressures on international students is made difficult by small and quick churning student organisations and underfunding and siloed welfare agencies.

So far, despite some successes, civil society has by and large failed to hold the market and government to account.

Why Sydney Alliance?

Civil society has so far been challenges to hold the market to account, particularly for the 70,000 or so students in the Vocational Education and Training sector (VET), and those on some other visas. Sydney Alliance seeks to rebuild civil society, why not in one of the most unregulated parts of the market.

A defining feature of the Sydney Alliance is that no matter what your creed, colour, race, economic power, background, ability or gender all people are recognised as full people, as humans worthy of a flourishing life with meaningful relationships and material needs met. No one should have to face these pressures alone.

Finally, the challenge is on our doorstep, with close to 200,000 students in our city facing these pressures.

Why now?

Thanks to the great work of Sydney Community Forum and the collective work of the COVID-response team there is a growing group of voluntary organisers who are international students who have a passion for tackling this challenge. Students and civil society organisations, within the national Covid response group started to meet regularly since March in response to the international student crisis. This group which we often refer to as subgroup is the Oz International students Chapter. The chapter is continuing to organise students nationally. The chapter currently led by an 11 member student co-chair team has representation from different states, though the majority is from NSW. Two months into the initial organising, the Oz International students Chapter got focussed into three streams of work.

  • A podcast to amplify student narratives;
  • a listening circle to listen to student pressures and to function as an entry point for students to the organising space (the next one is on September 10);
  • developing a an organising organisation for international student welcome, support & justice


Funding support from the City of Sydney to Sydney Community Forum is supporting Nirmal Joy (SCF) and Diana Olmos (Sydney Alliance) to build and resource the organising project until July 1st 2021. This will allow us to carry out a focussed organising project, with the already established Oz International students Chapter as its civil society leadership team. This proposal describes the vision for this specific one year organising project.

Based on the NSW Government’s own modelling, “it is estimated there might be as many as 40-50,000 financially vulnerable international students in NSW. If you assumed 10% of those were most at risk, which would still be 4-5,000 international students at highest risk”. As of July 1st, 4500 students in Sydney have accessed the Red Cross for payments (Red Cross has the highest threshold for emergency payments).

COVID-19 is likely to send a bunch of VET providers belly-up. Organising during a period of change and churn means more is possible than otherwise. Currently VET providers have a genuine interest in retaining their reputation and current student enrolment.


What is the solution?

We have to organise with international students to create protections and regulations in their world.

We start with the education providers. Every student is enrolled in one and the first step in tackling the many pressures and failures of the system is to “get eyes” on the shadowy VET sector. While universities have a few open physical campuses, union density and student organisations (of varying strength and reach), there are over 400 VET operators in NSW (likely the majority of which are in Sydney). They range from established organisations like ACAMP, to religious groups like Hillsong College, to TAFE NSW and to small ad-hoc English language colleges in towers in the city.

For many international students coming to Australia, these colleges provide next to no welfare support, they take no domestic students and the student experiences life in Sydney in a vacuum where they have to fend for themselves. Organising those students is hard because their experience is isolated and disconnected and so are their education institutions.

When the team approached Study NSW for the figures of how many EFTSL (equivalent full time student load) of providers, they didn’t or couldn’t provide this information.

So here’s the vision:

An organising organisation for international student welcome, support & justice

  • International students are connected to an organisation that provides welcome, support and justice.
  • This organisation is run by civil society, not tied to any one business or government.
  • The organisation is staffed by international student alumni and graduates who are trained by Alliance partner organisations in welfare and organising and who work together to create and build relationships with successive generations of students, organise, welcome, support and campaign for justice.
  • These positions are paid for by a mix of funding, but primarily from private providers who in turn are recognised as having a community standard of support.
  • This structure is supported by and co-governed with civil society organisations in NSW. These organisations might be migrant groups, or those with an interest in mediating the pressures and ending the exploitation of international students in the workplace, accommodation and education. This provides permanency of focus beyond the churn of successive generations of students and a connection to local electoral power, relationships, network and knowledge.
  • Local councils with an interest, such as City of Sydney, Randwick, Inner West and Ryde have a key role in providing ongoing support.

Such an organisation could:

  • Train thousands of students every year in their workplace, welfare and accommodation rights.
  • Create a leadership and organising pathway and experience for hundreds of students who would go on to work for the common good in Australia or overseas.
  • Provide resources, structure and support for the international student organisations’ self-determination on advocacy issues.
  • Have the relationships, reach, structures and organising skills to tackle entities exploiting internationals students.

There are many creative challenges such as:

  • Designing the funding mechanisms and models that provide independence from individual VET providers without depending on NSW or Federal government.
  • Compelling enough sign-up of VET providers to get to critical mass.
  • Questions of structure and decision making, including future relationship with the Sydney Alliance (see London Living Wage Foundation)
  • Retain the iron rule (don’t do for others what they can do for themselves) in relation to the leadership of international students.
  • Buy in from migrant communities not yet engaged in the Sydney Alliance.

The proposed project plan:

What can be expected between September 1st and the AGM in December.




Research Project tracking down the 400 providers and getting them into some sort of organisable order.



15 Assistant organisers working with Diana Olmos.

Listening with international students about the effect of COVID-19

June - ongoing

The Chapter, Assistant Organisers

Design and discernment of a pilot structure and mechanism



Partner organisations with an interest.

Research Action meetings with universities, VET providers, peak bodies and businesses


Leaders, subgroup, Assistant organisers and staff.

Drafting an organising plan for January-March to present on Dec 2nd.

By Nov 25th ready for AGM on December 2nd

Leaders, subgroup, Assistant organisers and staff.

A public accountability action on City of Sydney and potentially a few key decision makers and VETs


Leaders, subgroup, Assistant organisers and staff – supported by the whole Alliance.

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