Her course went online, so international student Johanna asked for a fee reduction

In the third of a series of reports on international students in Australia, SBS News speaks to those who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 but are still having to pay full-price tuition fees.

Johanna Velasquez

Johanna Velasquez came to Australia from Colombia. Source: Supplied

Johanna Velasquez never imagined she'd be lining up for free food.

But after losing her casual job at a clothing retailer, that's exactly where the international student from Colombia found herself.

The 37-year-old has been in Sydney for three years and since the coronavirus pandemic hit has found it difficult to pay for basic living costs. 

"We need to pay everything as well, studies and rent, normal life, but without job," she told SBS News.

Johanna is studying Information Technology Support at TAFE NSW which costs almost $5,000 a semester.

But when she asked for a discount on her fees because she was struggling financially and was no longer receiving in-person teaching, she was refused.

Food Vouchers Distributed To International Students
International students line up for food vouchers outside Melbourne Town Hall in June. Source: Getty Images

"All the time online, so the quality at the moment is less and we must pay normal," she said.  

TAFE would only offer a deferment or refund, she said, but neither was a suitable option because she wanted to finish the course, just at a discounted rate.

Sydney-based lawyer Nick Hanna has been inundated with requests for help from international students.

The problem with a lack of hands-on teaching only becomes more apparent on more practical courses such as hairdressing and physiotherapy.

"They [education providers] appeared to be in clear breach of their contracts as well as possibly in breach of Australian Consumer Law and the relevant Australian Standards for these education providers” because all courses went online, Mr Hanna said.  

He provided a template letter for students requesting fee reductions but most were rejected until his law firm became involved.

"Thankfully, in those cases, we did see the colleges back down but it's unfortunate that it took them to receive correspondence from a lawyer to actually abide by the law and provide students with the flexibility they were otherwise entitled to," he said.

"They are there to provide a service to human beings and these are human beings who were facing extreme financial difficulty due to factors that were completely outside of their control.

Food Vouchers Distributed To International Students
Many international students have been hit hard by the impacts of COVID-19. Source: Getty Images

"The students were entitled to receive a quality education - that's what they paid a lot of money for - and if that can't be provided, the very least some of these colleges can do is provide some flexibility and lower their fees."

A spokesperson for TAFE NSW said it was working to support students impacted by the pandemic, including those from overseas, and offered the option to defer fees and studies. 

"TAFE NSW is working to reduce the immediate impact of COVID-19 hardship on its students through a blanket fee deferral ... Students are also able to defer their studies without penalty should they wish to do so," they said. 

The move to remote learning "has been well-received by students overall," they added, "and has enabled TAFE NSW to support its students to continue with their studies with the least disruption possible in these challenging circumstances".  

Phil Honeywood from the International Education Association of Australia says "you can't beat the benefits of face to face teaching", but points to the fact that education providers are also struggling financially. 

"Their ability to then offer large discounts given they're still paying for teaching staff, plus the online teaching platforms, have been compromised as well."

Overseas student fees have been the largest source of revenue growth for Australian universities in recent years.

The industry supports 250,000 Australian jobs and is the country's third-largest export at more than $38 billion every year, behind iron ore and coal.

The federal government had allowed temporary visa holders whose income had been affected by the pandemic to access up to $10,000 of their superannuation - but it was only available for the financial year 2019/20. 

It has left many international students to rely on charity to survive.

The Addison Road Community Organisation in Sydney has had to upscale its food security program which offers discounted and free food to the needy.

Lately, its CEO Rosanna Barbero says they have seen a huge increase in international students.

"We're seeing a new cohort, we're seeing a cohort that's never relied on any form of aid or support or assistance, in fact, the opposite. We're now working with a cohort of students, we're seeing in the thousands, we've done a quick count of over 6,000 students," she said. 

She says they deserve Australia's support.

"I'd like people to remember that a lot of these students, they are the ones that will be the cleaners in our hospitals, they will be the carers of our elderly, they are the carers of our children, so we need to make sure we treat them with humanity."

5 min read
Published 1 July 2020 at 5:53am
By Catalina Florez