Life as an international student: Sometimes, it feels like we’re second-class

IT’S a city that’s deeply loved by international students, but at times, not a love that’s felt as mutual due to ever-changing visa regulations and lack of recognition of the talent international graduates bring to the table. Indonesian student Marcella Purnama shares her heartaches as well as hopes for future generations of students. 


I love Melbourne. I love studying here. I still think it’s the most liveable city in the world. That being said, I have my dark moments too. As an international student, I’ve experienced frustration and discrimination. I feel like I’m constantly being regarded as a second-class student.

There are many experiences I can share, but there are two things in particular that I would like to talk about: the ever-changing visa regulation that drives me nuts and the (un)equal job opportunities provided to international students.

My hate-hate relationship with visa

In 2012, I witnessed a mass exodus of international students back to their home countries.

Jobs were scarce, and virtually no one wanted to employ international students. Some students decided to stay and try their luck in securing Temporary Residency (TR) visa and hopefully a job before the one and a half years were up.

My degree in Psychology and Media Communication, albeit at the number one university in Australia, was not enough to grant me a TR visa. So instead of facing a prolonged period of uncertain unemployment, I went home.

Even though a TR visa gives you the right to work, it doesn’t mean it gives you equal opportunities to find work.

I went home because even though I had fallen in love with Melbourne, I wasn’t deemed “skillful” by the Skilled Occupation List. I went home because having work experience at my home country seemed like the better option compared to facing unemployment in the city I called “home”.

After graduation, I worked as a content writer in both non-profit and corporate settings in Jakarta. In mid-2014, I decided to return to Melbourne to pursue post-graduate studies.

Ironically, I witnessed a similar trend.

Friends and acquaintances who had secured a TR visa after graduation were packing their bags. In their one- to two-year post-study stay, they were only able to secure part-time jobs at local cafes and supermarkets. Some worked as concierges in service apartments. While some of them were able to secure gigs in their fields of study, it was still not enough to make them stay.

Having invested more than $100k for our education here, why do international student graduates still have to jump through so many hoops to stay? And even though a TR visa gives you the right to work, it doesn’t mean it gives you equal opportunities to find work.

This leads to my second point: With the unemployment rate among fresh graduates in Australia looming like the tower of Babel, it will be even harder for us internationals.

(Un)equal opportunities in finding work

Why is it that hard for international students to secure internships, part-time or full-time jobs? Are we really not trying hard enough?

Actually, we are trying really, really hard.

I understand that employers prefer to hire locals. After all, they have the same culture, and they tend to be better in communicating their ideas.

But just because we take longer to respond as we are constantly translating our thoughts from one language to another, it doesn’t mean what we’re saying doesn’t matter. Just because we don’t participate as much in debates and conversation, it doesn’t mean we have nothing to say. And just because we speak in accented English, it doesn’t mean we’re not smart.

Over the years, I have become more skeptical about my shot in being able to secure a job here in Australia. But I hope more employers would embrace hiring people with different cultures and ways of thinking in the workplace.

Last semester, I enrolled in an editing subject where I was the only international student out of 14 other domestic students. In week 7, my tutor suddenly asked me in the middle of the tutorial, in front of all the other students, “Marcella, do you follow this? Can you understand what’s being taught?”

It was one of those times when I really felt like a second-class student. The tutor was probably just asking out of concern, but it hurt, because it showed that in her mind, I might not be good enough. In her mind, I was another international student who might not understand English well. It hurt because I had been working hard.

If this happened in an educational setting, what about the workplace? Would such “discrimination” be even more apparent?

Over the years, I have become more skeptical about my shot in being able to secure a job here in Australia. But I hope more employers would embrace hiring people with different cultures and ways of thinking in the workplace.

I look forward to a Melbourne that would welcome international students who have spent a significant part of their lives and made significant financial investments through their education to stay.

The Victorian government has done a lot of good – they have introduced the iUSE pass to provide students discounted public transport fares, post-study work visa option, and more. But there are things that can be improved.

A quick scan through the Immigration Department website reveals that I’m still, despite studying a post-graduate degree, unable to secure a visa after my graduation. I’m not eligible for post-study work visa, nor is my skill featured in the Skilled Occupation List.

It might not happen in my generation, but I look forward to a Melbourne that would welcome international students who have spent a significant part of their lives and made significant financial investments through their education to stay – not forced to return home because of visa issues and not having a fighting chance for employment in the first place.

Marcella Purnama returned to Jakarta to work after completing a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne in 2012. She is currently back in Melbourne pursuing a Master of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. 

Have your say

The Victorian Government is inviting current and former students to contribute to the discussion on making Victoria the place to study for international students – and our team at Meld is pleased to be facilitating these conversations.

Share your feedback in the comments section below or help us by taking this simple online survey.

There are 17 comments

  1. JoGe

    Having spoken to some corporation owners on this issue in casual conversation, I’ve learnt that on many occasion it isn’t organisations that doesn’t want to hire as they have identified some valuable strengths in employees from other countries; but the challenge is in a government that protects their own people and set stringent rules to discourage the employment of foreigners and promote priority of protection and provision to citizens. Though it may not be the case for all organisation and industry, but it is evidently a major reason amongst others. I started with the only job I could get 3 years ago in housekeeping albeit possessing credible 10 years of work experience in the clothing industry. 3 years later today after I’ve completed my postgrad a year ago, I am casually employed by my client from housekeeping service to be an administrator and p.a. In her company. However, It’s frustrating as even though much interest was shown by the CEO to provide sponsorship, I am not eligible to apply because i have no background experience to assess against it.

  2. Anonymous

    I feel there is a slight misunderstanding of the Skilled Occupation List here… It doesn’t mean you are not skilled, it means that the occupation has not been determined as being “in demand”.

  3. PassionPit

    Language and cultural barrier is not the main problem. Nowadays , many companies in Australia are hiring people from various background to support diversity in work environment .

    Organisation in Australia are looking at potential employee for strong attributes such as leadership skill , teamwork skill, and etc. Therefore, even if you speak perfect English and you being a local, that still does not guarantee you from being employed unless if you do have those attributes. Now ask yourself if you do have such attributes which makes you employable in Australia?

    Also , I agree with previous Anonymous comment, you misunderstood the skill occupation list as you are considered to be unskilled. The thing is , Australia is being selective in terms of granting work visa to foreigners as there is high demand for foreigners to work in Australia thus it increases job competition in market which leads to increasing unemployment rate . In a way , Australia wants to protect its citizens too from unemployment.

    I know it must be hard in your position at the moment , frustrated for securing a job .

    I believe your tutor did not mean to discriminate you but rather it was just to show his concern as it was his responsibility to ensure the students are on track.

    You should see this issue objectively.

  4. Mark Hoo

    Hi Marcella,

    Having been through the migration process (and watched many others pass through it over the years) I have some thoughts I’d like to share… I have tried to touch on all the points you made.

    The Australian government is actually really keen to take migrants like you (and me) – it currently issues over 100,000 permanent skilled migration visas a year, and the number issued has steadily gone up every year for the last 15-20 years. And why not – most of the costs of raising us as children would be borne by another country, and they get us just when we’re the most productive. It’s a self selecting process, poaching only the best and brightest from other countries. As a bonus we also help offset changing demographic trends – aged pensions cost $35 billion a year right now, and it’s not an accumulation style fund – you don’t pay for your own pension. Current workers are taxed to pay for current retiree pensions. Like all developed countries, the trend has been towards families having fewer children and improved healthcare has led to greater life expectancy, hence the trend of an aging demographic, with progressively fewer working taxpayers having to support a greater and greater number of retirees. Singapore experiments with trying to convince couples to have more babies, Australia just imports new workers directly via permanent skilled migration.

    So why not issue an unlimited number of permanent migration visas? The flow of foreign migrants depends on the availability of jobs – there is no point issuing more visas if there are simply no jobs. Even worse, since Australia is a welfare state, each unemployed person costs the state up to $10,000+ a year in Newstart welfare payments. So there’s no point issuing say 10,000 additional permanent migration visas even if all 10,000 are guaranteed jobs – if all that happens is that 10,000 additional local Australians are now unemployed, and now the government has to pay out $100 mil a year in unemployment benefits.

    You mention unemployment – and there’s no getting around the fact that unemployment for both locals and internationals is high – very high, actually, relative to all Australia’s neighbours. Unemployment is at 6.1%, with 800,000 people out of work. Roughly another 1 million people are “underemployed” – by the official definition of unemployment, if you worked a single hour in the week surveyed, you don’t count as “unemployed” – even though you’re actively looking for work. So these 800,000 unemployed people don’t count the people who are working a few hours at McDonalds while searching for a law / accounting / engineering job that befits their degree. The total number of job seekers is closer to 2 million.

    Jobs with high unemployment rates get taken off the skilled occuption list. If there’s jobs available, that profession then goes back onto the skilled occupation list. There is a constant debate each year with industry representatives over which degrees and occupations make it on the list. That’s at least part of the answer to why your degree doesn’t appear in the SoL: it’s not that you’re unskilled, it’s that there are simply no jobs available.

    I was in a field that was on the skilled occupation list, but even then competition was tough. I spoke to a few HR managers working in companies that ran graduate programs, and they all confirmed the figures to be somewhat similar – each company usually gets around 2,500 applicants competing for 50 job openings, a 1:50 ratio. Jobs and professions outside the skilled occuption list have even worse ratios, around 1:100. This is the main reason why visa applications are not open to them: even if you got the visa, your chances of getting a job aren’t good, even if you had a “fair and equal” chance at applying for a job.

    Skilled migration is actually a relatively new concept in Australia. Back in 1997, Australia only issued 27,500 permanent skilled migration visas. The focus on migration was primarily humanitarian in nature at the time. Over time it came to focus instead on building up a highly skilled workforce and thus the intake has steadily increased each year – up to 78,000 in 2005, and up to 126,000 in 2012. It continues to climb. There’s no doubt if the economy was better, and unemployment was lower – if there were actually jobs available – Australia would be issuing even more migration visas. The flow of migration visas was restricted after the 2007 financial crisis, we saw a general tightening of the rules that made it much harder to obtain a permanent visa – but crucially, the quantity of visas issued each year continud to go up. You mention the “ever changing visa regulations” – this is part of the reason for it. Still, Australia remains one of the easiest countries in the world to migrate to, if you compare the process to other countries like Malaysia or America. Australia welcomes over a 100,000 graduates a year with permanent visas, and over 200,000 graduates per year with temporary working visas.

    You also mention racial discrimination. It’s a really complex topic. I’d draw similarities to how we’re dealing with gender discrimination. I think it’s plainly clear that the outcomes today are not equitable, but the path to achieving equality is not clear at all. For example, see how tech / engineering firms are 90% male dominated, but it’s not clear how to achieve 50% gender parity. Same with senior management / exec positions. There’s a similar issue with race, but again it’s not clear how it can be resolved. On the other hand, Asian migrants tend to excel at technical roles and I know of cases where companies even sometimes express a preference for Asians over local Australians. It’s all taboo to talk about, of course.

    I know all this is small comfort to you, but I do think knowing more about the issue helps everyone be more informed. As an analyst there’s many problems we face that have no obvious solution that satisfies everyone. In an ideal world, every graduate would be able to stay, and find a fulfilling job in their career of choice. I don’t really see a way for that to happen, and I can’t really fault the policies as they stand today. Things can get better: if / when the economy recovers, I guarantee you visa regulations will relax again, just as it has in the past as we travel through the economic cycle.

    Good luck!

  5. Lisa

    Hi Marcella,

    I have to disagree with you, just because you’ve spent $100,000 on getting a university degree doesn’t mean you’re entitled to get a job in Australia afterwards.

    You paid for the opportunity to study and get a degree in Australia and Australia has fulfilled that. Employers prefer to hire locals because local students pay for their studies through a loan from the government and they start paying back this loan once they start working and earning money. Therefore, it’s better for the Australian economy to hire more locals as they will not get this loan back, but they won’t if they hire internationals.

    Also international students can take their well recognised degree back to their home country and find work, there is no reason why they HAVE to stay in Australia whereas locals student don’t have that choice.

    An Australian employer will only hire an international student if they have a unique set of skills/ experience that are heads and shoulders above a locals.

    so stop trying to play the victim card and blaming it on discrimination etc and start improving your resumes and making yourself more employable to Australian businesses/ organisations.

      1. Lisa

        Explain to me how I am being discriminatory and what makes you think I’m being mean?

        i’m saying that international students paid for their education, which they got and when it comes to job hunting they need to show that they have unique skills that the local students don’t. You can’t expect equality if you’re not even on equal standing to begin with. Imagine if an aussie went to another these students home country, would they be given equal opportunity to find work? Likely no.

        If it was choice between two local students with equal skills and capabilities and the only difference was their ethnicity and one was hired for the job based on that fact then it will be discrimination.

        Well, out of those three countries; Australia is the easiest to get PR, the UK requires at least 10 years residence with more bureaucracy and red tape entwined, not sure about the US

    1. Z. Ali

      Lisa & associates,

      I strongly agree with you BUT it doesn’t mean I disagree with Marcella. Instead long description, please accept my concise wording to save time of readers, too.

      Marcella tried to represent her TURE Wounds along with causative factors, She could identify. So, I suggest, if someone is still unable to care about her wounds (which She received being an International student in Australia); it may be unjustified to exploit her feelings and wounds further. I got two international Master degrees from two different countries; so can understand why someone “study” – obviously for better career.

      I hope all students (local/international) will agree, paying $100K range amount just for having (rather by student’s own efforts) ‘so-called’ “Australian recognised degree” is just like bluffing himself. So let’s be realistic for others, too.

      Mark Hoo, has rightly pointed about Australia’s internal situation. My single point for you (Lisa), then why to use misleading/guiding words, like ‘Post Study Work Visa’ or similar pathway streams to snatch substantial amounts from International student????? I know, no one will consider this a ‘crime’ because great bluffers have great set of words to cover what they do with others.

      Let’s help each other to make lovable societies.

      I wish you all the best.

      Ali, UK

  6. Pat

    International students must understand why they are studying in Australia – the reputation, quality, cohort etc and not for migration. It is all too often that we see students from overseas studying and expecting that they are entitled to stay on.

    Every graduate has to compete for a position and it is those that have the best ‘fit’ that are offered them. No one cares how much money you have (spent) and no one is entitled to anything. Perhaps a little more humility would go a long way.

  7. Mr X

    I think what the author means is having more equal opportunity to find work, not being entitled to get work. Employers are more likely to dismiss international applicants and not consider them at all. It’s like losing before the match even starts.

    I used to be an international student, currently working and residing in Aus. But even now, I see favouritism towards the westerns compared to the Asian. And often I heard the locals saying that “CBD become the nesting ground for Asians”. I find that quite offensive to hear, especially in a country where multiculturalism is encouraged.

    1. Lisa

      It’s just the way the world of works is

      Employers hire people who they think are going to fit into their company and with what they want to achieve.

      I know many companies won’t hire women because they can’t afford to pay them maternity leave if they get pregnant or hire single parents because they can’t give them the time off they need to look after their kids.

      Maybe the reason for those comments are that SOME asians and people from overseas need to make a bit more of an effort to assimilate into Australian culture instead of only hanging around people from their own countries. multiculturalism goes both ways

  8. anon

    Many international students have come to expect that permanent residency outcomes go hand in hand with tertiary study. Yes there is discrimination but there are many types, including that of an ageist and sexist nature, so it’s not always about whether someone has an ‘ethnic’ name or face. And there are many jobs that favor internationals or ethnic backgrounds, or people with limited English. This is particularly true in the unskilled sector-7Eleven is a case in point. Note also that it is often new migrants exploiting their compatriots-I remember the story of a Sth Korean slumlord packing in Sth Korean students in his apartments, and there are so many other stories like this, eg in recent years Indonesian cafes in Melbourne hiring Indonesian students only and paying them as little as $4/hr. So when people say Australia is racist or discriminatory towards International students, who are they really talking about?

    I do, however,agree that international students are cash cows for universities (and tests such as IELTS), which have become, in some institutions, almost completely dependent on the exorbitant fees they charge. But so many students put up with this, because the lure of residency is so great.

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