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Subtle discrimination is ruining the future of Australia

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

01 The forgotten group

There has been an increasing voice advocating cultural diversity in the Australian workplace. In Karen Loon’s ‘Fostering culturally diverse leadership in organisations’, she provides an essential roadmap of actions for organisations to build a more inclusive workplace. However, despite more relevant discussions on LinkedIn and other social media channels, one group kept being left out is what I call the Challenger group.

The Challenger group is a group of international students who come to Australia for higher education after completing their secondary education overseas. The Challenger group is committed to living and working in Australia permanently.

This group has distinctive characteristics that differ from other culturally diversified immigrants in Australia, such as those born in Australia or who migrated to Australia when they were very young. The Challengers are currently between the ages of 22-45 and are determined and committed to becoming more successful in their careers.

Those who belong to this group have decided to embrace numerous challenges while striving to find work in Australia to live permanently. They challenge themselves to become a better version of themselves. They challenge the status quo to showcase that they are competent. But, most importantly, they challenge to contribute, not to disrupt.

There needs to be more support from government and non-government organisations offered to this particular group. But, unfortunately, it is a brutal fact that this group is left alone. And being in this Challenger group, I have never seen anything in the mainstream media advocating this group's importance to Australia's future.

In this article, I aim to summarise and analyse the two main problems encountered by the Challenger group in Australia and propose actions to address the issues. It’s imperative to take concrete actions now to look after the Challenger group before Australia loses its global talent competition and ultimately misses out on a better version of Australia.

02 The background and the problem

As per Department of Education, Provider Registration and International Student Management System (PRISMS), from 2002 to 2021, over 3.5 million international students studied in Australia. More than 50 per cent of them have chosen Australia as a destination for higher education after completing secondary education overseas. Many of the international students have picked Australia because they:

  • believed that the quality of Australian education would significantly improve their prospects after graduation;

  • knew there was a pathway for them to permanently live and work in Australia.

For the past 20 years, the Australian economy has gained enormous benefits by attracting the Challenger group to Australia for high education. Yet only a few from the Challenger group have overcome subtle discrimination to step up in their career and hold senior leadership positions at medium or large organisations (public or private) in Australia.

The lack of success stories within the Challenger group has started to cause doubts, which will affect Australia’s reputation as a destination for higher education and immigration. The stakes are too high if not tackled properly.

Problem 1: there is no equal ‘playground’

No one can deny that the talent market in Australia is always competitive for graduate roles after the global financial crisis in 2008. However, the first hurdle this group of international students must overcome when looking for a full-time graduate role in Australia is what we call ‘eligibility criteria’. As an international student, I still remember seeing a similar statement below when browsing graduate opportunities in both the public and private sectors.

‘When submitting your application, you have the right to work full-time in Australia until at least xxxxxx (covers the duration of the contract for the graduate position). This may include Australian Citizenship or permanent residency, New Zealand citizenship with a current New Zealand passport, or holding a visa that allows you to work full-time in Australia.'

You may feel that the requirement is fair enough. However, there is subtle discrimination in this description that excludes international students from obtaining these opportunities.

Recently, a member of my career development community obtained a graduate program offer, which was then withdrawn ridiculously. Let me lay down some facts to help you understand why this is so frustrating. Let’s call this member Jane.

  • In August 2022, Jane applied for a graduate position with an organisation in her last semester under a student visa. The role will commence in February 2023.

  • Jane applied for the role assuming she could graduate in November 2022 and obtain her post-study visa well before the commencement of the position.

  • Jane passed a few rounds of interviews and assessments and received an email offer in November 2022.

  • A week after Jane received the email offer, she was advised by the organisation's HR that:

‘At the time of application, we asked you if you had full-time working rights until the end of the graduate program, as this is one of the eligibility requirements. Unfortunately, your current visa does not satisfy the requirement and you will need to apply for another Visa. Unfortunately, this means you are not eligible for the Graduate Program and should not have submitted your application. As a result, we can no longer offer you the role.'

Jane passed all her exams in November 2022. She received her completion letter in December 2022, with which she obtained her Post Study Visa in the same month, which is well before the commencement date of the graduate role. However, she still missed out on this graduate offer.

You could argue that HR has a point because Jane is not eligible to apply based on the eligibility requirement. However, it’s the requirement like this that has:

  • denied a passionate and talented young graduate from contributing to the organisation;

  • let many international students like Jane down;

  • excluded international students from competing for these opportunities; and

  • created negative sentiment among international students about their overall experience in Australia.

More people in the Challenger group are wondering why they are paying much more for tuition when they can only apply for a small percentage of graduate opportunities in Australia compared to local students.

I understand the nuisance of implementing policies and frameworks to ensure local residents' talent market stability so that their employment rights are not jeopardised. However, the right approach is investing more resources to improve skills and competency rather than establishing hurdles to exclude or minimise competition. After all, talent recruitment should be based on merit. Such narrow-minded eligibility requirements have resulted in the Challenger group falling behind at the beginning of their careers.

The Challenger group deserve a more equal ‘playground’, yet there is a long way to go.

Problem 2:There is inadequate support

  • Jane asked her university to fast track the issuance the Completion Letter so that she could apply for the Post Study Visa and satisfy the eligibility requirement for the graduate job, but she was turned down.

  • John asked for a 10% salary increase after doing well at work. However, his employer rejected the request, but the employer is willing to hire someone else for the same job at a salary 20% higher than John's current salary.

  • When Tina's manager marginalised Tina and mistreated her within the team, Tina had minimal options to resolve the issue via internal HR policies and processes. Usually, the only option is to leave the organisation.

  • When James is hitting roadblocks finding his first full-time employment, there is not much resource and support available to improve the employability skills for James.

These are just the tips of the iceberg; these are the stories that happened to the Challenger group daily. As a career coach, I often hear these in our regular discussion groups or one-on-one coaching sessions.

It’s disappointing that these happened much more often to the Challenger group due to the cultural difference and language barrier. And when these happen, there is not much that they can do rather than complain about this within their network and then accept and move on.

03 Where to go from here?

A structural and sustainable solution requires effort from all levels to collaborate. Government bodies, universities, organisations, corporate leaders, and students & professionals in the Challenger group are all part of the solution. Therefore, it’s crucial for representatives from government bodies, universities, corporate, and the Challenger group to sit down together to review and redefine the end-to-end journey of Challengers in Australia. From the moment they apply for higher education until they truly thrive in the corporate world or in managing their own business. The purpose of such a deep dive is to identify, remove and minimise hurdles and subtle discrimination along the way.

At government level

Policymakers and leaders must spearhead changes to create a more friendly environment for the Challenger group if they have the skills and willingness to stay in Australia. Working Visa application process and turnaround time need to be constantly reviewed and optimised to align with the demand of the talent market. Obtaining a working visa after graduation should be a smooth process for all students, including the Challenger group. Australia's working visa policy should become a competitive advantage for Australia to attract more prospective students and talents.

At university level

University policies and procedures need to accommodate the Challenger group because they are the delta that can contribute to Australia's future. Their success would inspire more prospective students to enrol. Conversely, a terrible student experience at university, whether academic-related or service-related, will have an immense negative impact on the university's reputation and will have a flow-on effect on the potential growth of the university. Never underestimate the power of word of mouth.

More often than not, universities are hesitated to invest resources to target a specific group of students as it violates the principle of fairness. I would argue that fairness means that all students can enjoy the same playground. For those who would like to contribute to the Australian economy, pay Australian tax, add value to the Australia culture, and live an Australian life, the university should deploy resources accordingly. University seminars, events and other activities should be accessible by all students but with a focus to cater for different needs. Universities need a swift switch from nominal fairness to true fairness.

At organisation level

Would you laugh when you see 'We are an Equal Employment Opportunity employer'and 'When submitting your application, you have the right to work full-time in Australia' in the same job advertisement? Why do companies demand that applicants have full-time working rights six months before the commencement of the role? I can understand the risk and recruitment process involved here, so if the requirement says, 'successful applicants need to provide evidence that you have the right to work full time in Australia 2 weeks before the commencement of the role.', wouldn't this be fairer?

Corporate HRs and recruitment agents should collectively review eligibility criteria for job vacancies to ensure that such requirements incorporate all candidates, including the Challenger group.It’s company HR and recruitment agencies’ responsibility to ensure organisation have access to the full suite of talent pool to truly embrace diversity. What’s more, graduate role application journey needs to be optimised to attract the best talents.

For corporate leaders

Actions from corporate leaders set examples within their organisations. To the corporate leaders, I encourage you to be more open-minded when looking for talents within or outside your organisation. What truly matters for talent selection is finding someone with the right motivation and skills. While skills can be trained and improved, it’s much more difficult to uplift motivation. On average, the Challengers have stronger motivation to make an impact after investing significant time and money in higher education in Australia. They would like to demonstrate that they are capable and are as good as, if not better than, local talents.

Do you have anyone in your organisation that belongs to the Challenger group? If yes, what can you do to motivate and empower them? If not, are you open to hiring a Challenger? When you communicate with a Challenger or when you have a Challenger in a group meeting, would you invite them to share their views? Are you patient enough to let them finish? Would you discuss with a Challenger to see how they can improve?

For students & professionals in the Challenger group

If you are a challenger who truly wants to make a difference, I would like to encourage you to consider below 6S strategy.

  • Start engaging in value-adding initiatives, big or small, give your best shoot and reflect afterwards.

  • Stop being a lone wolf and leverage the power of communities of like-minded people.

  • Share your success, failure, and learning.

  • Strengthen your mindset to be more resilient and hopeful.

  • Seek for help from mentors, professional coaches, and sponsors to fast-track your journey. It’s even better to find someone who is also in the Challenger group because they have been there.

  • Support other Challengers whenever you can. Regardless of your position and power, trust that you can add value.

End of this article, beginning of a new era

I will end this article with a few questions for us to reflect on and, more importantly, to take action to make it a more inclusive and multicultural Australia. It’s everyone's responsibility to prevent subtle discrimination from ruining the future of Australia.

  • Why on earth majority of the International students in NSW universities today still cannot enjoy Opal concession?

  • How can universities help international students to fast-track the issuance of completion letter so that they can apply for the Post Study Visa immediately after they satisfy all graduation requirements?

  • What would you do as a corporate leader when you came across corporate processes and policies that are subtle discriminative?

  • As a Challenger, when you become a corporate leader, would you like to promote and uplift other Challengers?

Steven Yu

A thinker and facilitator helping young professionals thrive.


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