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Opinion – Unlimited Working Hours for International Students: A Blessing or a Curse? 

In January 2022, the Australian Government announced that it would temporarily ease the restrictions on working hours for international student visa holders. While Student visa (subclass 500) holders are typically only allowed to work 40 hours per fortnight, this condition was relaxed to help fill labour shortages caused by COVID-19. Since its launch, the decision has sparked varying opinions among industry leaders and students themselves. 

Some students have been overjoyed at the change, appreciating the increased flexibility to earn more money and support themselves through their studies. Others, however, have expressed concern over the new rule, saying that students run the risk of overworking themselves and falling behind in their studies. Many others fall somewhere in the middle of the divide. 

So, why are some people ecstatic about the change while others are more worried? How have the unlimited working hours affected students’ lives, professionally and academically? And, if the original cap on working hours is reinstated, what does that mean for the future of international students?

To get some of these answers, we went straight to the source. We spoke to four international students across Australia who have adopted different opinions and approaches to the rule change. This is what they had to say. 

Embracing the change: Students working more than 40 hours per fortnight

A new sense of freedom

Divyangana (who goes by Divya) Sharma moved to Melbourne from her native India in February 2020 – right before the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by storm. Upon arrival, she commenced her Bachelor of Nursing at Holmesglen TAFE, though her international study experience looked far different than she had expected. 

While Divya originally planned to work in Australia immediately, the pandemic postponed her finding employment for several months. In late 2020, she started working in COVID-19 testing centres, an opportunity that allowed her to gain hands-on experience in a healthcare setting. However, at that time, she was only able to work 40 hours per fortnight, which she says limited her ability to grow and learn new skills. 

As a result, Divya was delighted when the working hour restriction was lifted, particularly since she’s working in an industry related to her field of study. This, she shares, has enabled her to make a difference while enhancing her professional skills. 

Having no cap on the number of hours I can work has had a positive impact on me. I have been able to contribute to a post-COVID emerging Victoria even if it is in the smallest way possible,” she says. “For someone who works in the field they’re studying, it has been a boon as I am able to apply my theoretical knowledge at work. It’s like I am on placements – the only difference is that I get paid!” 

Sharing this sentiment is fellow international student Pallavi Bhasin, who is also from India and is currently pursuing a Diploma of Nursing at TasTAFE. Shortly after arriving in Australia, Pallavi landed a job in recruitment, which allowed her to work remotely from home. When the restriction on her visa was lifted, she was eager to increase her working hours right away. 

I am so happy that the restrictions are removed as now we [international students] can work and financially support [ourselves],” says Pallavi. “This opens a lot of doorways, especially living in a state like Tasmania where everything is so competitive.”

According to Pallavi, having the capacity to work more hours has increased her competitive edge in the job market. If the cap is reintroduced, she worries she may lose this edge – or even her job altogether. 

“I have this fear that if the restriction comes back – then what? I don’t want to lose my job because we [as international students] have to support ourselves financially as well,” she shares. 

Focusing on academia: Students working fewer than 40 hours per fortnight

An unnecessary distraction

For other international students, the lure of working unlimited hours wasn’t as strong. Originally from Vietnam, Dat Nguyen arrived in Australia in January 2022 to complete his Master of Data Science at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Although he had the opportunity to work more than 40 hours per fortnight, Dat has chosen not to for a variety of reasons. 

“[Since I only arrived so recently], everything is still new to me and I know I need to focus on completing my studies while adjusting to my new life in Australia,” explains Dat. “This semester I have to complete a thesis (which for me is quite challenging) and two electives. Part-time work, therefore, is not my priority.”

To accommodate his studies, Dat works as a freelance photographer, only taking on jobs when it suits his schedule. 

Another student who opted not to work more than 40 hours a fortnight is Macarena Alamo Santos. A dual citizen of Spain and Canada, Macarena came to Australia in December 2021 to complete a Master of Teaching at Charles Darwin University (CDU). In addition to her studies, she works as a teacher at the Darwin Languages Centre and as a student copywriter for CDU. For Macarena, while part-time work is an enriching part of the student experience, her course is her top priority. 

“Remaining under 40 hours per fortnight is essential to complete my program successfully,” she explains. “CDU’s Master of Teaching is very rigorous and requires full commitment to your classes and school placements. This is essential to gain the knowledge and skills [needed] to be a great teacher.”

Macarena adds that, in her opinion, it’s important for students to look at the big picture of their international study experience and their long-term goals.

“Unless your work is related to your studies, the time that you spend at work is usually time that you can’t spend studying or practising your skills,” says Macarena. “Working more than 40 hours per fortnight allows you to gain a higher income in the short term. However, this might prevent you from successfully completing your studies, which can impact your visa status as well as your future career.”

The importance of choice

While each of the four students offers a unique perspective, they all agree on one thing: when it comes to choosing your working hours as an international student, the decision should be yours alone.

I believe [it’s] a personal choice. There is [no one forcing] you to do more than 40 hours. It’s the individual who has to see what works best for them,” says Pallavi. 

Dat also shares this perspective: “Even though it doesn’t affect me much, I still think the ease of restrictions is a good thing. I think there could be many students who were really struggling during and after COVID, so they need to make some more money to improve their quality of life.”

While there has been concern over students’ ability to strike a work-study balance, Divya explains that “students who are passionate and want to learn will always find a way to balance their work and not let it affect their studies.”

More than anything, the students highlight that providing international students with the freedom to choose is one of the many steps the Australian Government can take in offering them the treatment they so rightly deserve.

As Macarena points out: “International students should be seen not just as numbers, but as full contributors to Australian society. They bring their culture and skills to help create a better future. Through its international students, Australia receives a wealth of creativity, innovation and new ideas.”