International students call on Victorian Government to improve support

5 March 2021

International students experiencing financial hardship and food insecurity have called on the Victorian Government to improve support measures.

The state government established a $45 million International Student Emergency Relief Fund in April 2020 to support students whose finances have been hit by reduced working hours or job losses. 

However, the fund ignored unemployed international students, whose budget became even tighter during the pandemic.

According to Study Melbourne—a state government initiative providing support and information to international studentsthe fund has supported less than a quarter of international students living in Victoria.

As a result, many students have been forced to look for food relief from Australian charities. According to  Foodbank Australia, around 40 per cent of food banks have seen increased demand from international students since the beginning of the pandemic.

On 21 October 2020, Study Melbourne collaborated with Foodbank to open the International Student Pop-Up Store in the CBD, providing free vegetables, staple foods and canned food.

However, some students have struggled to meet their nutritional needs while relying on food from the pop-up store. Michelle, a Vietnamese student ineligible for the relief fund, was disappointed with the limited options in the store.

She believes the state government and the University could be doing more to improve food security for international students.

“The University or the government can organise free meals, give allowance to cover the groceries, for example, $60 per week for international students.”

International students have also criticised the University and state government’s public health messages.

Anita van Rooyen runs wellbeing programs with Study Melbourne and says many students had trouble finding timely and accurate public health updates.

“It has been difficult to navigate, especially for new 2020 students and foundation level students too with more limited English,” van Rooyen said.

“I think the lesson here for all education providers and support services is that many of these challenges students faced with struggling to find trustworthy, independent information is not new.”

Many students have been unable to see their families over summer, as most international flights have been suspended.

Those who found a flight home will struggle to return to Melbourne before Semester 1, as international borders are set to remain closed for much of 2021.

As Victoria emerges from the pandemic, van Rooyen believes more should be done to help students improve their mental health. In January, Study Melbourne ran the Summer Feelz Festival for international students to expand their network and put the challenges of lockdown behind them.

“I’ve created the Summer Feelz Fest to be a celebration for all kinds of students with activities that provide more than just surface-level support,” van Rooyen said.

Meanwhile, the Victorian Government has not announced the renewal of the Emergency Relief Fund in 2021.

This story is ongoing.

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