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It’s been too long — we must revive the NSW campaign for international student travel concessions

NSW’s intransigence stands in stark contrast with Victoria.

Art by Nafeesa Rahman.

Every year in the annual SRC elections, candidates and factions promise to lobby for the extension of travel concessions for international students. These are pledges which go largely unnoticed in the larger scheme of Council businesses and the constant attacks on higher education levelled by the Federal Government and university management. 

Little substantive change has materialised. Today, despite efforts ranging from a 500-person petition to parliamentary representation, no progress has been made in over three decades. In fact, the only small win, in the form of discounted MyMulti tickets, was abolished in 2016

NSW’s intransigence stands in stark contrast with Victoria, where the international student community managed to secure a significant win in 2015 when undergraduate students became eligible for a 50% discount on MyKi annual passes. This plan was the fruit of a concerted, years-long effort between advocacy groups, the state government and universities. Notably, as stated by Minister for Public Transport Jacinta Allan in 2015, Victoria’s travel concessions were co-funded by a 50-50 split between the government and universities. Furthermore, the plan was bipartisan, having been a legacy from the preceding Napthine ministry. 

It is hard to deny that the Victorian model was premised on a profit incentive, due to the economic benefits international students bring to the state. After all, as of 2019, international education is a sector worth some $40 billion. Although imperfect, six years on, the Victorian initiative continues to thrive and goes some way to alleviate financial hardships encountered by overseas students. 

In comparison, a short history of the tense relationship between Transport NSW and international students started in 1989, when the liberal government under Premier Nick Greiner withdrew the discounts. Another watershed moment arrived in 2006 when the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA) under the behest of Jenny Leong, took the Labor Transport Minister John Watkins to the Administrative Decisions Tribunal and won the arguments on the basis that exclusion of international students was discriminatory

However, this victory was short-lived, with the government swiftly enacting legislation to render the tribunal order ineffective. This was based on the argument that all international students were wealthy and thereby should not enjoy concessions: “They then pay up to $40,000 to the Federal Government to undertake their degree,” Watkins argued on the floor of the Legislative Assembly. “Why then should hardworking New South Wales’ families be expected to foot the bill for providing them with half fare travel on public transport?”

For international student advocates such as Mabel Coelho, Watkins’ speech dismisses the difficulties facing her community: “Sydney is one of the most expensive cities for [international] students, so a lot of us are at a disadvantage,” Coelho said. “I struggled a lot with financial stability and jobs especially when the pandemic started.” She notes that the unaffordability of living in Australia has impacted her mental health. Indeed, according to a report by Professor Alan Morris, overseas students face a multitude of housing, work, and wellbeing challenges — in some cases even resorting to hot-bedding

Despite these challenges, Coelho believes that the crux to overcoming public misperception of issues facing international students lies in building understanding through mutual communication and listening between the lived experiences of locals and students: “If international students are open to talk and share stories, and others are willing to listen, I believe we’re going to make a big difference.” 

Hence, for advocates like Coelho, a shift away from the narrative that the sole contributions of international students lie in profitability and towards a narrative based on multiculturalism, collective achievements and community belonging is key to mobilising grassroots community support for her community in order to secure positive policy outcomes.  To this end, groups like the Overseas International Student Hub (OISH) have been providing a supportive space for students as they navigate the transition between their culture and independent living in Sydney. 

Down south, despite the exclusion of postgraduates, the Victorian community remains committed to push for change: Luba Grigorovitch, Victorian Branch Secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union says: “The RTBU supports the campaign to ensure public transport is affordable for all students in need. Now more than ever we must pull together as a society to ensure our recovery doesn’t leave anyone behind and removes barriers to get people back onto public transport as soon as it is safe to do so.”