Welcoming Cities Awards for Change – Local Government Category – City of Melbourne

Sebastian GeersCase Studies

Commitment to action for Victoria’s international students

City of Melbourne, VIC
Approximate population 154,000
55% overseas born
0.5% Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander

Through advocacy, strong messaging and essential support initiatives, the City of Melbourne brought the international student population back to 92% of pre-pandemic levels, helping the City to become more energised and economically stable.

Before the pandemic, more than 150,000 international students from 170 countries lived and studied in Victoria, contributing $13.7 billion a year to the state’s economy. However, as Covid-19 took its toll, international students faced life-changing problems. Dwindling support networks and strained finances due to lost jobs or reduced work hours contributed to social isolation and low liveability. Many students also had difficulty studying online and faced issues with their visas. While many students returned home, those who stayed were not entitled to federal government assistance and could not afford essentials.

As well as being such a large and important part of society, international students played significant roles at the frontline of the fight against Covid-19 – as researchers, student nurses, intern doctors, and volunteers in hospitals and health service providers. Knowing the importance of such a community, senior leaders and council representatives, including Mayor Sally Capp, advocated for change. Highlighting the importance of international students to Melbourne’s economic, social and cultural life, they also campaigned for support from state and federal governments. In addition to the strong messaging, a range of initiatives were co-designed with international students.

These included:

  • delivery of the $2m Our Shout food voucher program that supported 10,000 international students to purchase essentials from the Queen Victoria Market
  • reactivation of The Couch – International Student Centre (in partnership with the Salvation Army) as a free space for international students to engage, access free cooked meals, volunteer, and connect through planned activities
  • the My Melbourne Program that offered free tickets for key attractions to give students an insight into Melbourne’s arts, culture, sports and Indigenous culture
  • a Covid-19 vaccination centre at Melbourne Town Hall to reach some of the city’s most vulnerable, including rough sleepers, refugees and international students
  • an online resource that addressed the need to improve how students could find relevant Covid-19 information.

Kimberly Mitchiko Clemencio recently graduated from a diploma in community services in Melbourne. In early 2020, she had just returned from a visit to her family in the Philippines when the first lockdown was called. ‘It was very difficult. I was working in the city and after a week, my workplace closed down,’ she said. ‘I was paying for my fees, and I had rent and basic necessities that I had to be responsible for.’

She was initially given a food voucher, and as restrictions eased, Kimberly applied to be a student ambassador. ‘People were longing for connection with fellow students,’ she said. ‘So any time there was an opportunity to connect, I made sure I gathered everyone I know to learn more about what is going on in the community.’ She plans to stay in Melbourne long term. ‘There are a lot of opportunities and I can be whomever I want to be,’ she said. ‘People here are just very friendly and happy. I love the diversity.’

In addition to the initiatives, City of Melbourne was one of the first organisations to join the Victorian Government’s Commitment to Action – Improving international students’ employment initiative to strengthen pathways to quality employment opportunities. In 2022, City of Melbourne co-developed and launched the International Education Association of Australia’s Guide for Employers. This guide is for Australian employers who wish to provide work opportunities or employment for international students. The launch attracted over 150 businesses and education institutions.

Following City of Melbourne’s successful advocacy to increase the duration of post-study work rights by two additional years, they will renew the advocacy position to ensure that Australia’s post-study work rights are the most generous among comparable countries. This will make Australia an even more attractive and supportive destination for international students and ultimately encourage them to stay as skilled migrants.

Gary Lee is City of Melbourne’s International Education Manager. He said, ‘International students are a huge part of what makes Melbourne such a great place, and we want to do everything we can to ensure their time here is overwhelmingly positive.’  

Melbourne is currently ranked Australia’s best student city (8th year in a row) and rated the 5th best student city in the world (up one place from last year) in the QS Best Student Cities Ranking. Melbourne ranks 3rd in the student voice indicator and continues to be recognised as a city that cares for its international students.

City of Melbourne’s leadership has changed the narrative and improved the appreciation of international students in Melbourne. They are employees, business owners, volunteers, neighbours and valuable community members. By advocating for support backed up with their own initiatives, leaders have shown that real change can occur through community leadership.