International students complain they can’t find jobs


International students are complaining that they are struggling to find employment in their chosen field, prompting calls for policy action:

Australia has welcomed nearly 30,000 international students under new economic incentives in the past six weeks, but some international graduates say they feel “unappreciated” and more should be done to support their long-term prospects.

It follows the federal government lifting the 40-hour-a-fortnight work cap for student visa holders last month in a bid to fill skills shortages.

It also offered to refund the visa application costs of international students who arrived between January 19 and March 19 this year.

‘Insulting’ arrangement

International graduate Ruva Muranda said the temporary arrangements were “insulting” because little was done to support international students beyond recruitment…

“We’ve invested a lot to come here, but once we’re done with our studies, job prospects are limited and I feel like that’s unfair.”

International student graduates with a degree from an Australian institution are eligible to apply for a temporary graduate visa (subclass 485), which allows them to live and work full time in Australia for the length of the visa.

Graduates with a bachelor degree are granted a two-year work visa, while those with a masters or doctoral degree are granted three- to four-year visas…

University of South Australia business research dean Nancy Arthur welcomed the relaxation of policies for international students’ employment, but said they needed to be supported with services beyond recruitment.

“It’s not over when international students get here. It’s not over when they graduate. We really need to think about their multiple career transitions and the bigger framing of career development,” she said…

Professor Arthur said international students should be provided with support services and learning opportunities that fostered long-term success.

“It is very important that Australia is positioned as a country that welcomes international students and offers pathways to employment experience,” Professor Arthur said.

The latest Graduate Outcomes Survey (GOS) supports these findings, showing that only 41.6% of international graduates living in Australia were employed full-time in 2021, versus 68.9% of domestic student graduates:


The median full-time salary of international graduates was also only $54,300 in 2021, well below the $65,000 median full-time salary of domestic graduates:

Thus, a minority of international graduates work full-time, and of those that do work full-time, they are very poorly paid. The median total wage of international graduates would, therefore, be even worse, given most international graduates work part-time (unlike domestic graduates).


Employment outcomes were also poor across almost every international student source nation:

The bigger question that needs to be answered is: Why do we owe foreign students coming to Australia for an education a career in their chosen field in Australia?


After a strategic review of the student visa program in 2011 (‘the Knight review’), the Gillard Government greatly expanded working rights for graduate (485) visas in 2013.

In particular, 485 visa holders were not required to meet skills shortage requirements and were permitted to remain in Australia for between two and four years after they completed their studies, rather than the previous 18 months.

So unlike temporary skilled shortage (TSS) visas, holders of graduate (485) visas were not required to be qualified for any of the jobs on the Skilled Occupation List. They did not need a firm offer of work from an employer. They were not required to be paid a minimum salary. Nor must they find a job related to their qualifications or require a certain level of skill.


485 visa holders could work or study in any job, for any employer. And their visa remains valid even if they cannot find a job.

The Knight review was strongly in favour of expanding post-study work rights because it would greatly increase Australia’s attractiveness as a destination for international students, in turn delivering significant benefits to Australian universities and employers.

The result was that international education was quickly turned into an immigration industry. Australia’s graduate (485) visas are considered among the most attractive of their kind in the world because they provide full work rights. They are also highly valued by international students because they are perceived to be a pathway to permanent residency. Graduate visa numbers, therefore, exploded alongside the explosion in international student numbers:


As Peter Mares explained:

Knight stated plainly that an expanded work visa was essential to “the ongoing viability of our universities in an increasingly competitive global market for students.” Vice-chancellors also made the connection explicit. At the time, Glenn Withers, chief executive of Universities Australia, said that Knight’s “breakthrough” proposal was as good as or better than the work rights on offer in Canada and the United States.


The deleterious impacts on younger Australians entering the labour market were never considered, nor the erosion of pedagogical standards that arose from the explosion in international student numbers.

Before COVID hit, Australia had by far the highest concentration of international students in the world at around 3 times the concentration as the United Kingdom’s and Canada’s, and six times the United Sates’:


As noted by Associate Professor Salvatore Babones in his new book, Australia’s Universities: Can They Reform?:

Australia had the third largest international student population in the world in 2018, and actually overtook the UK in 2019 to enter second place, according to data from national sources. That’s quite impressive for a country of just 25 million people…

Australia’s concentration of international students per capita is nearly three times that of the UK and six times that of the US. Australia also has by far the most unbalanced flow of international students in the world. In 2018, the number of international students in Australia was more than 33 times the number of Australian students who went abroad. That’s nearly triple the ratio in the US and UK, and more than triple New Zealand’s ratio of 10.5…

Assuming that most of Australia’s international students fall between the ages of 18 and 30, roughly 20% of the entire population of the country in that age range consists of international students. No other major country in the world comes close…

Nearly all Australian universities enrol international students (and particularly Chinese students) well in excess of accepted practices in most other countries. They are absolutely exceptional by European Union and North American standards.

Such extreme student numbers were always unsustainable, brought about by cratering entry and teaching standards, and must not be allowed to return.


Instead, Australia should explicitly target a smaller intake of higher quality international students by:

  1. Raising entry standards (particularly English-language proficiency);
  2. Raising financial requirements;
  3. Raising course fees; and
  4. Removing the link between studying, work rights and permanent residency.

The above reforms would lift student quality, would raise export revenues per student, and would lower enrolment numbers to sensible and sustainable levels that are more in line with international norms. They would also help to improve teaching standards and the experience for domestic students, which should be our universities’ number one priority.


It was a mistake to ever include immigration and work rights as part of the international education compact. Education should be about higher learning, not higher earning.

About the author
Leith van Onselen is Chief Economist at the MB Fund and MB Super. He is also a co-founder of MacroBusiness. Leith has previously worked at the Australian Treasury, Victorian Treasury and Goldman Sachs.