AUSTRALIA: Tougher test for would-be migrants

Foreign students hoping to remain in Australia as permanent residents face far stricter entry rules under changes announced on Thursday by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

The government's decision to further tighten migration eligibility requirements could have a serious impact on the already faltering recruitment of foreign students, especially those from China and India which are the two largest source countries for universities.

Students from China hoping to become permanent residents are likely to find it far more difficult to reach the higher English standard required.

Vice-chancellors have been vociferous in their claims that the government should act to protect what they claim is an A$18 billion (US$18.06 billion) a year export education bonanza. They are unlikely to applaud the latest changes.

As reported last week in University World News, more than one in three of the 212,000 overseas students on university campuses in Australia are from China and one in 10 is from India.

A catastrophic fall in student enrolments from both countries followed previous government actions to tighten migration; the situation has been made worse by the rapidly rising value of the Australian dollar, increasing competition from other Western countries, and widely publicised violent attacks last year on Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney.

In Thursday's announcement, Bowen said a new points test that applicants for permanent residency would have to pass would emphasise the importance of English, work experience and high-level qualifications. He said the test had been designed to ensure no one factor guaranteed migration.

"These changes to the points test are an important next step in the series of reforms to the skilled migration programme announced by the government in February," he said. "'The existing points test has not always led to outcomes consistent with the objectives of the skilled migration programme."

Bowen said the current test placed an overseas student with a short-term vocational qualification and one year's work experience in Australia ahead of a Harvard-educated environmental engineer with three years' relevant work experience. The new test would ensure the best and brightest people were selected from a large pool of potential migrants.

A key change in the new system is that foreign students will need to achieve '6' on the IELTS test just to be even considered for permanent residency and will then need to accumulate at least 65 points. Under the existing rules, students with an IELTS score of '6' start off with 15 points out of a total of 120 required but they will gain no points from next July.

The changes focus on better English language skills, more skilled work experience, higher-level qualifications obtained in Australia and overseas, and different age ranges. Would-be migrants aged 25 to 32 start off with 30 points while 18- to 24 year-olds earn 20 points.

Bowen said the new test would continue to award points for study in Australia, enrolment in a regional university, community languages, partner skills and a 'professional year'. Points would no longer be awarded on the basis of an applicant's occupation although he or she must still have an occupation on the 'Skilled Occupation List'.

Monash University demographer Dr Bob Birrell has been one of the strongest critics of government inaction in controlling the number of foreign students using study in Australia as a simple means of gaining permanent residency. Birrell described the latest changes, coupled with those announced in February, as "adding up to a revolution".

"The changes are really quite significant and will make it much tougher for overseas students completing Australian courses to gain permanent residency," he said. "The government has levelled the playing field in terms of accepting migrants who have undertaken study and gained work experience abroad which is not the case at present."

Birrell said there would be an outcry from the universities if they realised the full implications of the changed rules. But he said the government still faced the problem of what to do with the 40,000 foreign graduates who had applied for residency visas under rules that were no longer current.