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Working in Australia on student visas: Nepali, Filipino numbers surge on back of migration loophole

Now they are no longer among the majority, nor do they even feature in Australia’s top 10 source countries for international students, national statistics show.

It all marks a sea change for Australia’s international education industry, which is now worth some A$36 billion (US$23.6 billion) and is proving increasingly difficult for Canberra to oversee as students, education providers and migrant agents alike find fertile ground for manipulation and fraud.

International education is now Australia’s fourth-largest export after coal, iron ore and natural gas, providing a major source of income for the country’s universities and colleges.

Many international students still pursue graduate degrees, but there are others who pay for more basic – and usually cheaper – courses to learn English or for vocational training such as nursing or teaching.

It is these types of courses that have attracted increasingly shady practices such as the exploitation of the student-visa system as an alternative to skilled-worker migration, reviews by Canberra last year revealed. Employers in the hospitality industry have abused the system as a source of cheap labour, while links were even found to the trafficking of sex workers.

Phil Honeywood, CEO of the International Education Association of Australia, says many of the problems stem from the lifting in early 2022 of a 20-hour weekly cap on how long international students are allowed to work, which turned the industry into a “Ponzi scheme”.

He told a parliamentary inquiry last year that many students were more interested in working – in restaurants and as Uber drivers, among others – than studying, or had been conned by fellow immigrants into work for free in return for permanent-resident visa