International education is complicated and heavily regulated at any time – but during the current COVID-19 period, a more sensible regime was imposed across the country. In truth, it was arranged out of urgency rather than consideration. Certain regulations were relaxed in an attempt at simplification and support for international students – but are slowly being reinstated. The three key issues relate to the number of work hours permitted each fortnight, the return to face-to-face classes (F2F), and the percentage of study permitted to remain online while living on shore. All are to be mandated – unnecessarily.


Forty (40) Hour Limit On Work Each Fortnight

Currently, and throughout the COVID-19 period, students are permitted to work without limitation. Much of this had to do with the labour shortage throughout the country – but flagged as a means of providing financial support to international students. In the early COVID period, this was a significant challenge – but a number of students have been working steadfastly in the mid-COVID period once isolation and quarantine were lifted.

The Australian Government has announced a return to the 40 hours a fortnight regulation in mid-2023. This requirement echoes the UK’s regulatory framework where students are allowed to work 20 hours per week during term time but can work unregulated hours during vacation periods. In Canada and the USA, with the right permits, students may also work up to 20 hours per week and in Germany, currently the fastest growing nation for international enrolments, work is restricted to 120 full days per year or 240 half days. However, in France, students may work up to 21 hours a week and beneficial national minimum wage conditions (Salaire Minimum Interprofessionnel de Croissance) mean that students can work up to 60% of the legal work year and receive the same benefits as French nationals (Campusfrance.org 2022).


Why Change Standard Regulations with A ‘Blunt Instrument’?

So, if Australia’s regulations and restrictions are in line with other international tertiary education providers, what is the issue that makes Australia’s case different? To answer that we need to take a look at the reasons behind limited work hours for international students in Australia and elsewhere.

Essentially, governments are concerned that students entering a country to study are not distracted from their studies by taking too great outside employment loads and that all international students are genuine students who honestly seek to obtain the qualifications that they declared on their visa applications.

Unfortunately, not all education providers in the past have been diligent with respect to ensuring the study obligations and academic attendance of their international students. The Department of Home Affairs has changed legislation and put measures in place in order to protect students from such inappropriate business operations.

There have also been instances in which international students have entered Australia on student visas but with little intention to study and have, in effect, gone to work in businesses and industries where their presence and income are unofficial and unrecorded. This is, of course, illegal. Others have simply disappeared from sight without honouring the terms of their entry visas. This is also illegal conduct.

All of the above, we would argue, are exceptions rather than the norm and the uniform application of a 40-hour per fortnight work limit for all international students is a blunt instrument for dealing with such a complex scenario.

There is also a global issue of ‘inequality of opportunity’ with respect to tertiary education. Our tertiary system lacks diversity and has become (through policy and funding approaches) locked into the status games of tertiary ranking and research status ambitions.

Whilst our universities are very happy to accept the international fees of the more affluent international students (some of whom enjoy government-funded scholarships from their home countries or even, as is often the case in Malaysia, from Chinese Chambers of Commerce and other ethnically centred business support groups) we are as a sector less concerned about ‘levelling the playing field.’ Whilst as educational institutions many universities cry ‘woke’ and have strong agendas for social justice and behaviour – we do less well when it comes to opening our doors to international students who are struggling financially and who may have sacrificed much for the chance of gaining an Australian education. Many international students are totally funded by their families and the scale of any family’s ability to fund a student in a tertiary institution may vary greatly. Our treatment of international students needs to be more cognizant of this wealth disparity.


Does an allocation of 20 hours per week actually provide sufficient support for the less wealthy students to sufficiently provide for themselves during their time as students?

As Australia heads towards even darker economic times and the rapidly escalating rate of inflation continues to grow (and we won’t cite the current inflation rate here as it will probably be much higher by the time this chapter goes to press!) international students of lower social economic status will increasingly find life in Australia harder and less appealing. We will, as the financial pundits are currently stating, all find the next 2 – 4 years economically testing. As Nila Sweeney reports in The Financial Review (2nd Nov 2022) ‘The number of distressed listings nationwide has jumped by more than 15 per cent since interest rates started rising in May as more vendors struggle to meet sharply higher mortgage repayments, data from SQM Research shows’. With SQM Research  2022) further forecasting that around 1 in 4 of all mortgage holders nationally is currently at severe financial risk the costs for international students in Australia can only go up. And interest rates are predicted to continue to climb with the next 6 months being anticipated as particularly challenging. (Nina Hendy, Nov.2, 2022. The Age.)

We argue that with rampant inflation and continued global uncertainty in zones of conflict in Europe; and with political tensions mounting in the South China Seas, Taiwan, North Korea and elsewhere – now is probably not a good time to revert to the pre-pandemic/pre-Ukrainian war levels of student work entitlement. The pandemic is still with us in economic terms.


A 60-Hour Fortnight Monitored Against Continued Academic Achievement

Rather than immediately reverting to the restrictions typical of the international sector, it would be a wiser idea to expand the hours to 60 per fortnight, or possibly allow trimester students the opportunity to work full-time during a single trimester as long as they complete eight subjects in a given calendar year. The balance between work and study is acknowledged but the resource of international students is invaluable and the opportunities offered are essential.

Universities should (and most do so stringently) monitor student progress. Surely the ringing of alarm bells with respect to students falling behind could be a trigger for insisting that permitted work by any international student in difficulty should be reduced from 60 down to 40 hours (or less) depending on their academic performance?

That said, our own institution has seen little, if any variation, in student satisfaction or grade distribution during the relaxed regulation period.


Return to F2F

During COVID-19, students and institutions were instructed to move to online studies. Some institutions did it very well, others not so. Student surveys throughout the period (including the DEST QILT survey) highlighted that many private providers operated effectively and efficiently – many high-profile universities on the other hand did poorly. Much had to do with the investment in technology and the focus on teaching rather than research.

There are workforce and work practice issues also in play here. COVID-19 and the move to online provision saw rampant staffing reductions take place in many Australian universities. The transfer to online provision has (possibly) been utilised by some universities to give credence to workplace staffing level reform at a previously industrially unachievable scale. Whilst Australian universities (by and large) have screamed COVID-19 poverty and have reduced staffing costs, the truth of the financial stress related to COVID-19 changes has been less than initially supposed. Unions have had little to say in this turn of events- although the sector is now beset by pay negotiation issues from the remaining academics in the system. The pandemic has found many government-funded universities wanting respect to how they viewed and expressed the claimed impacts of reduced international student revenue and pandemic-closed campuses.

The financial status of many tertiary institutions remains ambiguous. For example, despite its currently claimed investment-related $600M budget deficit, Melbourne University (Australia’s wealthiest university) has not been downgraded by Standard and Poor. It continues to have a very high credit rating. And there has been a succession of government-funded institutions being caught for systemically underpaying casual staff. Education Editor, Julie Hare (The Financial Review, 2023) refers to it as ‘wage theft.’ Melbourne University has been outed for underpaying staff by $31.5 million in the past year. After initially acknowledging a level of underpayment, it has just added a further $22 million or so to its misdeeds! Not very ‘woke’ is it? Melbourne University is just one of the 20 or more out of 40 universities implicated in such wage theft, according to the Australian Financial Review.

Effectively, our modern government-funded universities are quasi-corporate entities – focused on making a profit. Perhaps, not really that different from other large corporations that rely upon marketing considerations of quality, reputation, and value-for-money service? So when trusted brands such as Volkswagen are found wanting in their diesel emission claims or various models of Volvo, Jeep Hyundai and BMW also become recognised as problematic in their emissions claims (The Guardian, 2015; ICCT in collaboration with ADAC (2015); and Deutsche Welle (2018), great damage to reputational value occurs. Similarly, our larger tertiary institutions, with high corporate-level executive salary levels but heavy reliance upon the public purse, have lost the confidence of many faculty, students, and the general public as there is inconsistency and opaqueness in the budget explanations they have given across the public sector.


Is Returning to F2F the Right Answer?

For academic faculty, face-to-face teaching gives a level of surety with respect to their continued employment prospects. Not only has it been difficult, challenging, and less than satisfactory for many academics and students to move to online delivery – for larger universities it has created a level of academic job insecurity.

F2F operations require actual academic bodies to be placed in front of students; online delivery opens a new world of potential delivery approaches – via multiple broadcast lectures, podcasts, and pre-recorded offerings which need to be filmed only once and can be replayed ad infinitum. Consequently, such approaches do without expensive lecture theatre setups, reduce classroom needs, and can operate in and across multiple locations. They are less costly than F2F. Furthermore, they don’t restrict students to attending a geographic location at a specific time in order to obtain an educational interaction. Moreover, online approaches can be 24/7 learning opportunities whereas the traditional F2F model is a logistical nightmare of students constantly moving between various buildings at brick-and-mortar campuses.

The Australian Government Regulator (TEQSA) is proposing a return to face-to-face teaching and learning in mid-2023 – when it is safe and practical to do so. Much of this desire is driven by the poor level of online delivery at some institutions and the desire to re-open facilities and retail outlets on campuses.

Again, it is the business model of the ‘real estate based – geographically located’ (traditional) university which is currently dominating sector and government thinking. Once more, a blunt instrument in use by The Department of Home Affairs is to apply a ‘one size fits all’ edict that doesn’t take into account organisational differences and market preferences.

Our own institution has seen little if any variation in student satisfaction or grade distribution during the relaxed regulation period. Further, in the most recent student survey relating to a return to campus (T3, 2022) – 96% of students indicated a preference to stay online. At the Melbourne CBD Campus, the preference was 100%. The most logical option in mid-2023 and onwards would be a hybrid mode – allowing the students to choose.


Percentage (%) of Study Permitted Online When Onshore

Pre-COVID-19 the limit (or percentage) of study that students could do online while on shore was 30%. During COVID-19 this was suspended, and students were able to do 100% of their study online. 

The issues here seem straightforward but are, effectively, a bit of a conundrum. Why come to Australia to study if you are going to do all of your degree online? How much on-campus learning is necessary for international students? 30%? 50%? 70% or none? There is actually little data or research available to conclusively determine an accurate and reliable answer here.

Tangentially, the UK has recently noted that the average number of co-dependents accompanying international students to their shores is 1.6 per enrolled candidate – with the average age of international students being 26 years and 7 months (Kim Martin, 2022). It is sometimes the case that international students have family responsibilities and considerations around employment for spouses and partners who may be making an individual’s studies in a foreign country financially and culturally viable. Again, whilst supporting a young family and studying- a preference for more online and less F2F should not be made into an insurmountable hurdle for students.

There are those who are also calling for change and recognition of diversity within the Australian sector. ‘Institutional diversity cannot flourish without tuition fee variation… Australia’s new Labor government must allow more fee flexibility for high-cost degree subjects otherwise genuine student choice will disappear’, say Robert Griew and Ian Anderson (The Times Higher Education, 2022). ‘Some university leaders running lower research-intensive universities, many strong on educational and community impact, are genuinely concerned about their ability to withstand more searching scrutiny on this research criterion’ (Anderson, 2022). The research criterion in question is the production of academic research – something that most of the small Australian private providers set aside in preference for supporting the student’s learning journey and undergraduate success.

The Australian Government Is Now Considering a Percentage of Study Permitted in This Online Mode.

Our own institution has seen little if any variation in student satisfaction or grade distribution during the relaxed-regulation period. If this unnecessary restriction is put in place at some time during 2023 - hopefully a percentage of at least 50% is seen as appropriate (in line with Canada and the UK). In reality, it should be left to the individual institution to determine what is best for its students. Arguably, a hybrid option should be applied.



The three issues are fundamental to international education and should be left to the individual provider to consider and implement. Blanket modelling is both troublesome and inappropriate. The very notion that somehow tight regulation is needed in the transition out of COVID-19 (which by the way is still with us) is erroneous and somewhat arrogant. If student welfare is a prime objective – this needs to be evidenced in student choice and diversity.

F2F teaching has a massive and vital role to play in all education. That it may not suit every student, or every scenario, needs to be further tested. Ultimately, we all realise that to serve the world with the qualifications needed to ensure individual and societal growth into the future our tertiary institutions need to make multiple pathways and delivery platforms available as required. To do otherwise will just limit higher education access to those who can afford an on-campus experience.


References & Sources

Anderson, I, Griew, R, Wisse, A, Morehead, A, Ackerley, S, (2022). Encouraging a responsive university sector- how have regulation and funding systems impacted this goal?

Campus France Australie (2022). Working Whilst Studying in France, Campusfrance.org.

Deutsche Welle (2018). www.dw.com. 30 March. 

Griew, R., and Anderson, I. (2022).  (The Times Higher Education, November 2.

Hare, J. (2022). Wage theft at Melbourne University…’ The Financial Review, November 2.

Hendy, N. (2022). What the rising cost of living means for the next six months. The Age, November 2.

Martin, K. (2022). The Pie News 26 October.

Sweeney, N. (2022). The number of distressed listings nationwide has jumped by more than 15 per cent since interest rates started rising in May…’ The Financial Review, November 2.

SQM Research (2022). SQMResearch.org, November 3.



Emeritus Professor Greg Whateley is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice President (Academic) at Group Colleges Australia (GCA). Formerly, he was Chair of the Academic Board at the Australian Institute of Music and Dean of the College at Western Sydney University. He has been keenly interested in alternative modes of delivering education since 2000 when he and Professor Bofinger founded ‘The Virtual Conservatorium’. Now, some 20 years later, he is deeply involved in the development of the virtual school.

Jim Mienczakowski is currently a higher education advisor, a Fellow of the UBSS Centre for Scholarship and Research, a member of the UBSS Academic Senate, and an author of gripping detective novels. Formerly, he was President and CEO of Curtin University’s Malaysia campus, Executive Director of Higher Education for the Abu Dhabi Government, UAE, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Industry) at Victoria University, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and Research) at Central Queensland University.