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Vietnamese students in Australia struggle amid pandemic

Vu Binh may return to Vietnam before getting his master's degree certificate from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology (QTU) as commencement has been indefinitely delayed.

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Photo taken on April 10 shows city view in Sydney, Australia. Australian authorities have reiterated the importance of social distancing rules as the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the country continues to slow. — XINHUA/VNA Photo

The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced the 25-year-old student from Hanoi to reconsider his post-graduation plans.

“The post-study work visas allow international students like me to temporarily live, work and study in Australia for two to four years after graduating from local higher education institutes,” Binh told Việt Nam News.

“However, observing the current situation, even Australian nationals are at risk of job loss. The labour market is off-kilter and I cannot be certain about my plans anymore,” he added.

Some 236,000 domestic students will get an AU$550 (US$350) allowance per fortnight as part of a stimulus package in response to the coronavirus introduced by the Australian government in March. Whether international students will get similar support remains to be seen.

“We do not care much about the allowance,” he said. “What international students really want is a tuition fee reduction.”

“It is a significant gap between studying online and off. Staying at home means we cannot enjoy on-campus facilities we have already paid for, especially those who major in graphic design who need iMacs at school to do their blueprints.”

Among some 31,000 Vietnamese students in Australia, many have their tuition fees paid by their families and cover their own living expenses by working part-time at shopping centres, restaurants or hotels.

Since the services sector, which contributes more than 60 per cent to Australia’s GDP, is being hit hard by the pandemic, Vietnamese students have lost their earning power.

“I work for a company focusing on event evaluation. Since all mass gatherings are banned, the company has halted all its activities,” said Binh.

“As far as I know, grocery stores and supermarkets are recruiting some more 7,000 employees due to higher shopping demand. However, the opportunity to be hired is extremely slim as many people are applying,” he added.

The situation is critical for those in Australia with their families.

Vuong Anh, a PhD candidate at the University of Canberra, said his wife, who works in the hospitality industry, had to take unpaid leave.

“She may retain her job when everything is back to normal. My company, however, has had its contracts withdrawn so basically I lost my [part-time] job,” said Anh.

Some 100 responders to a survey of QTU’s Student Union on COVID-19's impacts said they were carrying onerous financial burdens. A tuition fee reduction proposal has been filed to the school’s directing board.

“However, it is not practical,” said Dieu Linh, an undergraduate student at QTU.

“Lecturers are doing their best to deliver knowledge through online platforms. Instead of a tuition fee reduction, I think the university will offer financial assistance packages for students in need,” Linh added.

“There are also changes in grading. If you fail a subject, the result will not be recorded in your transcript. You can retake the course and sit another exam later,” she said.

Privilege of stillness

Phuong Luong, who received an Australia Awards Scholarship to take a master's degree at Flinders University, said the school developed a student support package of AU$12.5 million ($7.9 million) to reduce the financial burden and help students focus on their studies.

“In addition to financial problems, I think many Vietnamese students in Australia are suffering poor mental wellbeing in a time of uncertainty with their future plans turning upside down,” Luong said.

“This reality was hard to accept even for a scholarship recipient like me. During the first week of online studying, I had a bizarre feeling that it was like staying home in Vietnam and taking courses on Coursera.”

“I have learnt to accept the status quo and regained motivation by thinking of the privilege of stillness: staying safe in Australia, getting a monthly stipend from the award's fund and paying due attention to my studies,” she added.

For Binh, his graduation project on sugar market research is not going as he wanted. His group of seven members are scattered around Brisbane because of the school closure while not everybody can switch to online platforms quickly.

“It takes a whole day for a message to be replied to,” said Binh. “Our motivation is being chipped away, day after day.”

“Job loss, social distancing boredom, unfinished plans and unstable futures put international students under enormous pressure,” he added.

The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison added fuel to the fire by stating international students who could not support themselves should go home in early April.

"People should know though, particularly for students, all students who come to Australia in their first year have to give a warranty that they are able to support themselves for the first 12 months of their study," he said.

"If they're not in a position to be able to support themselves, then there is the alternative for them to return to their home countries."

The statement caused dismay and triggered an uproar among the Vietnamese student community.

“It was rational for the PM to state so,” said Vuong Anh.

“However, the timing was bad since the announcement was made right after universities’ census dates. Many international students, who had just paid tuition fees, might feel like they are being betrayed,” he added.

Both Vietnam and Australia have tightened their borders to contain the disease, making it extremely difficult for international students to leave, Vuong Anh said.

“It hurt to hear,” said Dieu Linh.

“I know that Australia does not have any responsibility to financially assist international students and we do not ask them to have any support in terms of money. We need encouragement to overcome these troubling times,” she said.

In the discussion with his Australian counterpart on April 9, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc asked the Australian government to support Vietnamese students, helping them feel safe to continue their studies.

Responding the request, PM Morrison said the Australian government would create favourable conditions for Vietnamese students to continue studying in Australia.

Amid the pandemic, local Vietnamese communities in Australia have lent a helping hand.

“Any Vietnamese student applying for the fund will receive 20kg of rice and two cartons of instant noodles,” Linh said.

“I’ve got grocery store vouchers and rice,” said Vuong Anh. “The Vietnamese community calls for people to donate food and sew facemasks for vulnerable groups as a way to express solidarity.”

As of Sunday, Australia confirmed more than 6,600 COVID-19 infections including 4,230 recoveries. More than 1 per cent of Australia’s population has been tested for SARS-CoV-2.

“I feel relieved that either in Australia or in Vietnam, the situation seems to be under control,” said Luong. “I encourage myself to stay safe, stay calm, stay healthy, and focus solely on my work.”

“Whenever calling home, I wish my parents the same. During this time, in case of any incident, I may not be by their side as quick as I want to be,” she said. — VNS

Khoa Thu

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