AUSTRALIA: Uncoupling education from migration

The federal Labor government has largely decoupled education from migration selection and in the process removed a powerful incentive for foreign students to come to Australia.

A new report says that for vocational education students who enrolled after 8 February, "the carrot of permanent residency" will largely be removed. For new university students, the permanent residency pathway will be far more difficult than it has been.

In part, this is because of the range of eligible oc¬cupations will be limited and because a new selection test to be introduced will be much tougher than the existing test.

"This means that to sustain and grow their market, education institutions will have to provide courses which are of value back in the countries of origin of prospec¬tive students. This is as it should be," the report says.

Australia has become a magnet for foreign students, especially from China and India, who hope that by studying in the country they will be able to stay on as permanent residents.

As a result of the changes to the immigration rules and the rising value of the Australian dollar, applications from foreign students are predicted to fall, with those from China estimated to collapse by up to 50% at some universities.Several vocational colleges have already been forced to close and many more are likely to shut down as the overseas market dries up.

In the past seven years, the number of Chinese students enrolled in Australian universities has quadrupled - from 16,000 in 2002 to more than 64,000 last year - while those taking vocational education courses jumped from fewer than 6,000 to almost 34,000.

In the same time, Indian student numbers in higher education increased from 8,800 to nearly 28,000 and in vocational education from 2,200 to more than 79,000.

Total numbers of foreign students at university rose from 115,200 to 204,000 while in vocational education the number went from 53,300 to a staggering 231,500. Many private and public education institutions are now heavily reliant on fees from the foreigners and will be badly hit by any fall-off in applications.

Writing in the Monash University journal People and Place, Dr Bob Birrell and Dr Ernest Healy say at least 400,000 students who hold a visa to study in Australia are waiting to find out if they will be eligible to remain in the country.

In a study of government changes to the way foreign students can gain permanent residency that came into effect in February, the two researchers say the ramifications of the new selection system will be enormous.

The majority of overseas students live in the poorer suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and whether they are studying or not they compete for jobs with young unskilled locals in the low-skilled job markets.

It is believed the concentration of students in these areas, and the fact they are vying with unemployed locals for jobs, has led to violent attacks on students, especially those from India.

"The third ramification concerns the responses of students to the new rules," Birrell and Healy say. "As the reality sinks in that most of the transitional group of former overseas students will not be able to obtain a visa, this will increase their desperation to find an alternative pathway to permanent residency."

They suggest that many of those affected by the new rules will try to find an employer to sponsor them. The network of providers, education agents and migration agents that have helped create an enor¬mous expansion in student enrolments "will be out and about looking, on behalf of their clients, for such employers".

But the researchers say few will succeed because applicants must have at least three years full-time experience in the occupation for which they are being sponsored. They claim that for other categories of applicant, unscrupulous employers will take advantage of the students to offer below-award wages and conditions.

"The employer can drive a hard bargain as regards hours, wages and work conditions in return. There will also have to be a willingness of the two parties to violate the legal requirement to pay the minimum wage of $45,222 (US$42,000).

"It would be naïve to deny the possibility of this occurring given that the stakes are so high from the point of view of former stu¬dents desperate for permanent residence and the commercial advantage for the employer in the hospital¬ity industry where margins are low."

Birrell and Healy say that with the Immigration's Department's limited inspection capacity, those involved in these arrangements probably will have little to fear.

Anyone familiar with their "academic research" would know that asking Birrell and Healy of Monash Universitys Centre for Population & Urban Research to offer their views about migration, foreigners and speakers of ESL is guaranteed to bring a negative response.

Andrew J Smith