'No one would know if I died in my room': Coronavirus leaves international students in dire straits

Surveys of international students taken before and during the pandemic show the crisis has made their already precarious situations much worse.

Psychotherapy session, woman talking to his psychologist in the studio

New research has identified concerns about the dire situations many international students are facing in Australia. Source: iStockphoto

Many international students in private rental housing in Sydney and Melbourne were .

Surveys of these students before and during the pandemic show it has made their already precarious situations much worse.

Of those with paid work when the pandemic began, six in ten lost their jobs. Many were struggling to pay rent and tuition fees.


This  is based on two surveys* of several thousand students. To track financial distress, we developed eight indicators from Australian Bureau of Statistics measures for the first survey in late 2019. We used these again for the second survey in mid-2020. The responses are shown below.

Since the lockdown started, 29 per cent of respondents had gone without meals, up 22 per cent prior to lockdown, while 26 per cent had pawned or sold something for money, up from 12 per cent. 

There were notable increases in the number of respondents who had trouble paying for electricity on time (23 per cent compared with 11 per cent pre-lockdown), while 23 per cent of respondents asked community organisations for help, which was up from 4 per cent. 

The 2019 survey showed about one in five international students in the private rental sector were already in precarious housing situations. The second survey revealed far more were living precariously because of deteriorating finances during the pandemic.

Incomes from work and family lost

The central financial issue has been loss of income during the pandemic. Just 15 per cent of students who’d lost jobs had found a new one. Almost two-thirds of those who still had a job had their hours cut, most by about 50 per cent.

At the same time, financial support from families decreased for just over four in ten students. Only 12 per cent said it had increased.

Before the pandemic, 50 per cent of respondents reported an income below A$500 a week; after it began, 70 per cent did.

Struggling to pay the rent

Six in ten respondents agreed paying the rent had become more difficult. Since the pandemic, 27 per cent said they were unable to pay the full rent. One in five agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “I feel I could become homeless.”

A VET student described the impact of losing her job on her finances.

"I could really save some money in the month of February and March that really, you know, took me until the month of April," the student said.

"So, I was not really worried in April, but then as May started and nearly the middle of May, I was really worried about my account balance. I’d already given multiple calls to different organisations by then for any kind of support."

Half of the respondents reported trying to negotiate a rent reduction: 22 per cent received a reduction and 31 per cent received a reduction or a deferral.

Almost half were unsuccessful. A university student from Melbourne outlined her failed attempt to reduce rent.

"Yeah, we are worrying (about paying the rent) and like we emailed to our agency to make discount or something like that, but they said it’s hard for them, an agency and landlord too, because the landlord has a mortgage... and everybody’s struggling and so for now they don’t have any discount... so we are worried because before that, before this current thing, we had our part-time jobs and the three of us have now lost our jobs."

A vocational education and training student from Sydney, who lost her job in March, described how she was treated when she couldn’t pay the full rent.

"So I was not able to pay my full rent... because of that they were like, ‘Okay, don’t pay rent if you don’t have any money, we’ll understand'.

"Then all of a sudden by mid-April they were like, ‘Hey, you have this much outstanding rent and you have to pay it immediately, otherwise the landlord is going to file the case to the tribunal'.

"And I was shocked, and it was out of nowhere, and I told them, ‘You were the one who told me you didn’t have to pay rent if you don’t have it'."

Studies and well-being suffer too

Students are struggling on several fronts. 

"Yeah, it’s crazy," one student said.

"It’s hard sometimes so that I’m not sleeping and then you have to do school work as well and then you have to think about these things like managing, talking to agents every day and negotiating and searching for jobs.

"There’s just a lot of things coming together."

Six in ten respondents agreed or strongly agreed financial stress was affecting their studies. Over half reported financial difficulties and 44 per cent worried they might not be able to pay tuition fees.

Just over a third worried they might have to leave Australia before completing their studies.

Respondents did not feel governments had supported them. State government support was rated good or excellent by 17 per cent, and only 13 per cent felt that way about federal government support.

"In this current pandemic the Australian government has made it more clear that they don’t really care about the [international] students," one student said.

"I don’t know why is that. It’s pretty much heartbreaking considering the input of them in the Australian economy."

Loneliness on the rise

Loneliness was already a significant problem and it has worsened during the pandemic. Just under a third of respondents said they felt lonely before the pandemic, but 63 per cent felt lonelier since the pandemic.

"I think no one would even know if I had died in my room if it wasn’t for a month when my landlady would come and ask for rent," one student said.

"Other than that, no one would even know."

* The first survey was distributed by 43 educational institutions (24 VET, ten universities, seven English language and two foundation course institutions) to their international students in late 2019. It received 7,084 responses. The second was distributed in June-July 2020 to 3,114 respondents of the first survey who had agreed to face-to-face interviews and to be recontacted. The second survey received 852 responses.

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Alan Morris is a professor at the University of Technology Sydney's Institute of Public Policy and Governance. He receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Gaby Ramia is an associate professor in Public Policy at the University of Sydney. Hereceives funding from The Australian Research Council.

Shaun Wilson is an associate professor of Sociology at Macquarie University. He receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Catherine Hastings and Emma Mitchell are assistant researchers at the University of Technology Sydney's Institute of Public Policy and Governance. They do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

7 min read
Published 13 August 2020 at 1:34pm
By Alan Morris
Source: The Conversation