Stairway to international student security


starwell, Flickr image by HeyThereSpaceman.It often happens these days that around 12.20am I find myself sitting inside a concrete stairwell. The electric light is harsh and the paint is peeling off the walls. It is not a pretty place but it is break time at work and this is where the casual workers take respite. We have been scurrying incessantly around the function room; now we sit exhausted on the steps, eating whatever leftover food the kitchen can supply.

Here, food takes on a blessed quality. Once appetites are satisfied the reigning silence lifts; the shabby stairwell is transformed into a meeting place. On the bottom step, two young men talk quickly in Nepalese. One step up, Bangla is the favoured language. Step higher and there are conversations in English, Indonesian, Hindi and French. Among the young people sprawled on each step, the energy at that time of night is extraordinary.

Although a tad shabby, the stairwell is one of Melbourne's best academies of learning, a place where real insights can be gained. Conversation topics range from the daily life of an Indian village to the politics of uranium exports. In this stairwell I have heard quoted Byron, Shakespeare, and the New Testament and I've been lectured on the differences between Catholicism and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.

Here someone has told about their village in Rajasthan, where the bore water upon which farming livelihoods depend is steadily running out. The storyteller is the first of his family to leave India. Another has marvelled at the way Australians throw a party: 'In India, we all get up and dance and nobody has drunk any alcohol at all!'

The conversations we have in that stairwell unveil our varied identities. These contrast with the one dimensional identity presented to guests out on the function room floor: the anonymous smiling waiter with the black apron and the little golden name tag. In such a diverse group, the only shared story is our experience of working as waiters — we all clean dirty dishes and smile as if to say that serving guests beer brings us deep satisfaction.

Instead, behind the facade donned for the function room floor, lies all the drama and stress of the lives of many foreign students in Australia. In the stairwell the myriad stories are accompanied by a narrative that I am not part of: that is, the insecurity of living and working as a foreign student with only temporary residency.

The other night one confrere described the time spent working and studying in Australia as 'a bridge between two lives', a time when 'life is put on hold' and his whole being is directed towards securing permanent residency.

After working from 7am all through the day, some students take an hour off before starting the night shift in this, their second job. And when they aren't working, they're studying. So of course, it is difficult for them to make friends and to build social networks with almost no time on their hands.

By law, my stairwell companions are not allowed to work more than 20 hours per week. Being paid less than $20 hour means that, in order to keep to the law, foreign students must live bare and strained lives. And when a course at one of the inner city Melbourne 'institutes' costs up to $8000 a semester, working only 20hours is a difficult promise to keep.

For some it proves so impossible to live within such scant means that they resort to working illegally and are paid in cash to avoid detection. This is risky; discovery means expulsion and the end of any hopes of attaining the holy grail of permanent residency. And if foreign students are working late night shifts in odd jobs and getting paid with wads of cash, what does that mean for their security on the last train home?

All this should make us question Victorian Premier John Brumby's recent statement in India that Melbourne is one of the most secure places in the world for foreign students. Perhaps Melbourne and other Australian cities are relatively safe, but insecurity is made of more than physical peril. Another problem voiced in the stairwell, this time by a Nepalese student, was the impossibility of finding housing.

He had applied many times for a room in a share house and each time had been rejected. He has been here for three years. He can't afford to go home and he won't go anyway until he has achieved permanent residency status. He is my age. I wonder how he copes without the personal support of a family.

Insecurity pervades the lives of foreign students. Often forced to work illegally, tired from late night work and study, deprived of family and social networks, and in some cases stressed by the uncertainty of temporary residency status, their lives, we should assume, must be difficult.

Yet, as a community, we are so often unaware of these difficulties. The people my companions and I serve at work may observe only a foreign face and a tray of drinks; they may see the Indian and Nepalese and African students who work with me as the generic 'foreign' student. But behind the facade there are complex realities which we need to understand.

After returning from India, John Brumby could contribute towards securing the lives of students like my stairwell companions. A good start would be to persuade Australian governments to extend the number of hours per week they can work.

Ben ColeridgeIn 2007 Ben Coleridge worked as a language assistant in Russia. He spent September 2008 in Israel and Palestine and is currently studying Arts at the University of Melbourne. 

Topic tags: ben coleridge, international students, work, cash-in-hand, john brumby, india



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Existing comments

Ben, this is a wonderful window into a life that is far from my own experience. Thank you for raising the issue. What about inviting into the stairwell your local MP, together with human rights activists who may be able to influence policy. We shall work towards a change of policy. Remember Micah 6:8
Barbara Brown-Graham FCJ | 30 September 2009

I would strongly advise against attracting any government attention at this time, which will only bring harm to your stairway companions since they'll be actioned against working for more than 20 hours. but this piece of writing will (hopefully) open the eyes of those concerned who can make *foreign students* lives well less strenuous, by making little changes like granting Public Transport Concession, Extend the amount of hours they can work.
Rakesh Mithun | 30 September 2009

The 20 hour limit is there for a reason, of course. Full-time study is a full time job. Lifting this limit is not the right solution. Lowering costs, or providing some kind of scholarship support or housing support is more likely to suit. Allowing part time study and a higher limit could also be a way to go.
Peter Horan | 30 September 2009

the sad truth is that international students are brainwashed in india by telling that australia is ultimate mecaa were everything is rosy and then when they come here and see reality and complain then they are asked by locals and i mean both from blue and white class that if they don't like here they should go back, which is weird becuse these students have put life savings of their parents at stake to come here and onle way they can get it back is stay here. Meanwhile racism is rampant and more tanner, more is the trouble.

I have been asked by white jew, italian, spanish aussies to go back in a polite way after i finish my studies and that's not to mention meeting skinheads in nation's capital canberra. situation is same with asians, and other non white minorities. I can only say that australia is far closer to europe in terms of race sensitivity than america. most indians professionals including me are waiting for australian passport so as to move to america as it is easy from here. many more experiences but word count is getting there.
michael | 30 September 2009

Interesting insights particularly into the "human faces" behind those serving trays. While I think the physical security of foreign students is paramount and a whole community concern, I'm not sure we can expect governments to legislate and provide for the totality of the foreign student experience and associated support needs. Let's face it, most foreign students have the aim of permanent residency (no problems from my perspective) but by itself this status should not guarantee residency. I wonder when some people come here as students and pay $20,000 for a hairdressing course, if they and their families are not at least complicit, along with dodgy private colleges, in putting themselves in vulnerable situations. I suppose this will continue to occur as people surmise that these positions of uncertainty are still superior to their lives in their native lands.
Tom Cranitch | 30 September 2009

Well put. We have focused too much on taking students' fees and not enough on providing good education and a welcoming social environment.
RFI Smith | 30 September 2009

Thank you for this enlightening article Ben, it is very interesting to here the 'otherside' from time to time.

I work in HR in a large city based company, and mostly I deal with hiring staff.
It always alarms me when these poor, vulnerable Indian students come in and promise me that they will work for cash after their allowed 20 hours.

It makes me wonder who is paying the taxes to maintain the infrastructure of our city, and whether it is morally right of them to also claim unemployment benefits.

But we must do everything we can to support them, whatever the cost to our children.
James Turner | 06 October 2009


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