The class of 2020: What it's like to be graduating in Australia amid coronavirus

With Australia’s economy brutally hit by the impacts of COVID-19 and job prospects dwindling, some of the more than 300,000 university students who graduate each year are finding it tough to stay positive.

Andrey, Vivienne and Deddy

Andrey, Vivienne and Deddy will all graduate this year. Source: Supplied

Deddy Kristianto is an international student from Indonesia who is set to graduate from the University of Melbourne in July. But the 24-year-old is doubtful his ceremony will now take place and if his parents will be able to make it from overseas as planned.

“I don’t really know if it’s going to be happening or not. It will be postponed, I reckon, but I’m not sure. My uni hasn’t been talking a lot about the graduation, so we just have to wait,” he told SBS News.

Once he graduates, things are even more uncertain.

Almost 600,000 Australians lost their jobs in April amid coronavirus restrictions, figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed this month.

A policy report released on Tuesday by the Centre for Social Impact also found the pandemic would have a significant social impact on young people for years to come, particularly for those transitioning from education to work.
Deddy Kristianto
Deddy Kristianto was looking forward to his parents coming to his graduation ceremony from Indonesia. Source: Supplied

Deddy is graduating with a master’s degree in construction and management and is concerned not only about the lack of job vacancies, but that he’ll also be competing with Australian residents who may get preference from employees over those on temporary visas.

“If this pandemic wasn’t even here, for us international students it was already challenging for us to find a job,” he said. “Now with the pandemic, it obviously would be more challenging.”

“I’m sad ... I came all the way from my country to look for a job here, [but] you just have to be more positive.”

More than 340,000 higher education students graduate each year in Australia, with international students accounting for more than a third of those enrolled at universities.

In accordance with state-specific bans on large gatherings, universities have been postponing mid-year graduation ceremonies since March, with many students instead graduating ‘in absentia’, meaning they still receive their qualifications - just without attending a ceremony. Those students will be invited to attend a rescheduled ceremony when restrictions lift.

But for some such as Vivienne Alt, a humanities student at the University of Sydney, they are still waiting to hear what the arrangement is from their universities.

“I’m due to graduate but I haven’t heard anything from anyone because COVID hit. No idea what’s going on, but I’m supposed to finish in June,” the 29-year-old said.

For others, the graduation milestone has been pushed back altogether.

Angus McLardie is a communications student at Monash University. He was set to graduate this winter but will now be looking at finishing in December after an internship that was part of his course requirement was suspended.

“I could do other units to bring it forward and still finish in the middle of the year but there won’t be any jobs going in the middle of the year,” the 26-year-old said.

Angus said at the start of the year he was feeling hopeful about the job market and had applied to multiple graduate positions, but when COVID-19 hit he received emails informing him the opportunities would no longer be running.

“I’ve been looking at getting into that advertising/marketing field, but from what I can tell, there’s just going to be zero entry-level jobs there … I’m just sort of sitting and waiting,” he said.

Vivienne Alt
Vivienne Alt is due to graduate in June. Source: Supplied

Andrey Grant has similar concerns. Graduating with a bachelor of engineering in computer systems and electrical systems, also from Monash University, the 23-year-old was hoping to find work designing hardware and software for companies.

"It’s looking a bit bleak because if large companies are no longer hiring, it gives a lot less faith about what the smaller companies are going to do,"  he said. "And there’s a lot more work that I’m looking for that’s in smaller companies compared to the larger ones … No one is recruiting."

More than six million workers have now accessed the federal government’s JobKeeper wage subsidy, each receiving $1,500 a fortnight, and as of 11 May, almost 1.4 million people have accessed up to $10,000 of their superannuation early - a third of whom were under 30.

In a speech on Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiled major changes to skills and vocational training which will see $1.5 billion of federal cash flow to state governments annually. He said the federal government's overwhelming priority is job creation.

But Verity Crane, a co-convenor at the University of Melbourne Student Union, said more needs to be done to support those who are about to enter the job market. 

“From a student rep position, it really worries me to see those students having to consider what their futures are going to look like under these conditions,” she said.

“There have been a lot of moments where students are considering their futures and they have a lot of calculations to make and they’re not being provided with enough information before critical dates to make those decisions equitably.”

“Students in general, and especially international students, are trying to consider their futures and not all of them are in the same position. International students may only have the time allotted in their course on their visas.”

She also raised concerns about the quality of the online learning and support being given to students in their final months before graduating.

"Just like the first term gives the ability to acclimatise to the course and provides you with the foundations for learning, the final term provides you with the foundations for employment for the industry."

“They’re just not getting the chance to acclimatise into that form of life. It’s like being forced out of the nest and falling through the sky."

Andrey Grant
Student Andrey Grant says no one is hiring. Source: Supplied

In a statement provided to SBS News, a spokesperson for the Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash said: “Recent graduates looking for work are encouraged to connect with their local jobactive provider and to check out the resources available at ”.

The federal government has also launched the COVID-19 , which connects businesses and organisations that have vacancies with job seekers, the spokesperson said.

“During these challenging times, young people are encouraged to explore all options available to them and connect with an employment services provider.”

A University of Sydney spokesperson said in a statement: “We have focussed our efforts on supporting our students using online and virtual means”.

This includes “CV360 online resume feedback, so students can upload their resume and gain instant feedback [and] our online jobs database Sydney CareerHub, which continues to provide a free platform for employers to promote their graduate programs, internships, and other positions directly to our students and recent graduates”.

The university says on its website: “Unfortunately, all graduation ceremonies from March to June are postponed until further notice as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

“We understand how disappointing this news will be for many of you. Graduation is a significant milestone in your university experience and a celebration of your achievement that you, your friends and family, and your university teachers look forward to.”

The University of Melbourne did not respond to a request for comment from SBS News. Its academic calendar “is being revised”, it says on its graduations web page. Monash University did not respond to a request for comment. It has postponed its May graduation ceremonies.

Australia’s universities are providing specific COVID-19 updates for students on their websites.

Marnie Vinall is a freelance writer based in Melbourne

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8 min read
Published 27 May 2020 at 6:23pm
By Marnie Vinall