Present tense: The year ahead

Welcome to another year of Present Tense, your union window into the world of ELICOS and post-secondary education in Australia.

The past two years have been unremittingly bad for the sector, with the pandemic and associated border closures creating a hammer blow.

In 2019, there were about 170,000 ELICOS students in Australia, enrolled in a total of 2.3 million weeks of study. By late 2021, there were only about 3700 students enrolled in a total of about 40,000 weeks of study. These are massive declines, and the industry is still very much in the doldrums.

By late 2021, however, some rays of hope were beginning to emerge. Widespread vaccination in Australia has allowed governments to loosen border restrictions, and by Christmas, students were allowed to begin returning, the first significant influx of international students since the borders were slammed shut in March 2020.

Nearly 50,000 international students have returned to Australia since the borders re-opened in December. It’s true that the bulk of these are university students returning to complete studies in which they’re already enrolled, but it’s safe to assume that new students will soon make up an increasing share of arrivals, and that Australia’s long-standing ELICOS sector will see a steady improvement during 2022.

Visa rebates

To assist in the recovery of the international student sector, the Federal Government announced a temporary scheme to provide rebates of visa fees for student and working holiday visas. Students and backpackers who arrive in Australia before Easter will be able to receive a refund of their visa fees, worth up to $630.

This marks a change in the approach of the Morrison government, which unfairly excluded international students from any of the government financial relief handed out early in the pandemic. Since then, this government has done little to encourage the return of overseas students, despite the multibillion-dollar contribution such visitors make to Australia in normal times.

The government is far from being altruistic with this program, however. Two years of pretty much no migration has contributed to severe labour shortages in areas such as hospitality, with low-paid jobs traditionally filled by overseas students and other migrants remaining empty. Clearly the government’s business backers are keen to get some of those workers back again.

Industrial developments

There’s no doubt the pandemic has been tough on private colleges, and naturally many have sought ways to cut costs. Given that the primary expense for most schools is wages, it’s not surprising that many colleges have looked to downgrade or avoid their industrial obligations.

Most colleges come under the industry award, the Educational Services (Post-Secondary Education) Award, and it is not legally possible for colleges to avoid the requirements of this award. Nevertheless, those traditional rorts of colleges, such as refusing to pay higher than a certain pay step, or neglecting to increase wages in line with the national increase or the appropriate step level have become even more rife, with most teachers happy to even have a job and therefore not willing to make waves.

A few colleges are parties to enterprise agreements, and while these colleges tend to reflect the more respectable end of the market, even here, employers are looking to cut costs, such as holding ballots to vary already-agreed pay rises, delaying bargaining to avoid normally due salary increases or, in extreme cases, seeking to have their agreements terminated altogether.

Members should be aware that industrial instruments such as awards and agreements apply as a matter of law, and employers must comply with them. Consequently, employees are entitled to the benefits of these laws, regardless of the broader situation. Members should contact their union for advice on how this might apply in your workplace.

Kendall Warren