AUSTRALIA: 20,000 applications cancelled

At least 20,000 applications from foreign students for permanent residence have been cancelled because of their poor English and qualifications considered no longer in demand.

In the biggest shake-up of what had become an education-migration industry, Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans last week announced an overhaul of Australia's independent skilled migration system. Evans said the aim was to break the link between students studying a trade in short supply and remaining in the country.

"This will make a permanent difference so that Australia is able to choose who migrates here, based on whether they're going to make a contribution,'' he said. ''If they don't have the English-language skills, don't have the trade skills and can't get a job, they should not be eligible for permanent residency."

Evans said the "perverse" points system that currently ranked a hospitality graduate from an Australian college above a Rhodes scholar from Oxford University would be reviewed.
Under the changes:

* A current list of 106 "in-demand occupations" has been scrapped and will be replaced by a new skilled occupation list that Evans said would focus on "high-value professions and trades".

* A points test to determine if aspiring migrants are accepted will be revised to give more weight to high-value skills and overseas qualifications.

* The minister will have the right to limit visa numbers for specific occupations.

* State governments will draw up their own lists of priority skills, with suitable applicants given priority in processing.

Evans said the new skilled occupation list would be developed by Skills Australia. The list would assist in addressing Australia's future skills needs and would deliver a mix of skills in areas such as healthcare, engineering and mining.

It will be available in April and will be reviewed annually. Students currently studying a course in an occupation not on the new list will have until the end of 2012 to apply for a temporary skilled graduate visa.

Evans said this would enable them to spend up to 18 months in Australia to acquire work experience and find an Australian employer willing to sponsor them on completion of their course.

While vice-chancellors welcomed the changes, the vocational college sector warned of a collapse in the export education market worth billions a year to the Australian economy. Immigration and education agents in India said the decision to cancel visa applications would devastate many families.

The vice-chancellors' organisation, Universities Australia, said the changes would aid the migration of highly qualified people and reduce their waiting times. Chief Executive Dr Glenn Withers said the migration reforms would encourage "the best and brightest" to migrate to Australia.

"For the present, these migration reforms will strengthen an historically strong programme and provide a foundation to make it even more robust and responsive to Australia's requirements in the coming decades," Withers said.

Under the previous Conservative government, foreign student numbers in lower-level vocational courses experienced a staggering rise. One of the strongest critics of the former government's lax approach to monitoring the huge expansion of the overseas education industry and the private colleges that have been set up to cater for the demand is Monash University sociologist Dr Bob Birrell.

Birrell has pointed out on many occasions the huge rise in enrolments in vocational education colleges where students were more bent on obtaining permanent residency than obtaining a qualification of doubtful worth in their own countries.

As Birrell documented, between 2004 and 2008, foreign student commencements in vocational education and training courses rocketed from just over 32,000 to almost 106,000 while enrolments in English-language courses more than doubled to nearly 100,000.

The rapid growth in numbers was a direct result of students using the education system to obtain permanent residency, with most students coming from India,. Birrell noted. Their numbers starting VET courses shot from 1,005 in 2004 to almost 33,000 four years later while those in English language colleges increased from fewer than 900 to 14,500.

The students tended to be concentrated in cooking, hairdressing, hospitality and hospitality management. In the same four years, foreign student commencements in these four courses increased from less than 5,000 to 40,500. Indian student numbers rose from 400 to more than 18,000.

Yet most of the students failed to find jobs in the fields for which they were supposedly qualified, Birrell reported. The four fields that attracted most students were removed from the occupations in demand list last year and students who hoped to use the qualifications they provided as a back-door means of gaining residency will no longer be accepted.

Students who completed the courses and applied to remain are presumably among the 20,000 whose applications were cancelled.