Tougher English-language and financial requirements should be imposed on overseas students to ease the “burden’’ created by immigration on major capital cities rather than “fiddling’’ with the nation’s permanent migrant entry program, a leading demographer says.
Bob Birrell, in a new report, finds the influx of overseas students to Australia has overtaken other categories as its main source of net migration.
Just a month after the Morrison government’s decision to cut permanent migrant visa numbers from 190,000 to 160,000 a year, Dr Birrell concludes that pushing the formal program “up or down a bit” is not a significant issue because overseas students are a “far more important contributor to Australia’s population growth”.
The detailed study of migration figures by Dr Birrell, who heads the Australian Population Research Institute after an academic career at Melbourne’s Monash University, found overseas students now accounted for 44 per cent of the nation’s net migrant intake — based on the difference between annual arrivals and departures.
Overseas students accounted for 104,987 of the 236,700 intake recorded for net overseas migration in the 2018 financial year. Growth in net migration of overseas students has also outstripped growth in other categories such as for visitors, workers or permanent entrants — up from 25,700 in 2012 to last year’s 104,987.
Analysing figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Home Affairs Department, Dr Birrell found overseas students were the biggest source of population growth in inner Sydney and Melbourne, and “thus major contributors to each city’s congestion crisis”.
He recommends “only one clear-cut answer” for the federal government to reduce the “burdens” on Australia’s migration intake — reverse a watering-down of English-language and financial requirements for overseas students. As universities competed for overseas students, Dr Birrell said the quality of higher education had been adversely affected because of lower university entry standards and English-language requirements.
“Australia’s universities have had to create learning enclaves, mainly in business and administrative courses,” he said. “In these enclaves, the standards for English-language skills, academic preparation and learning outcomes have all had to be adjusted downwards in order to attract and cope with overseas students.”
But Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, said the university community was “fed up” with Dr Birrell using migration figures to attack universities and overseas student numbers.
“His research flies in the face of a report by the Department of Home Affairs and Treasury last August, which found that 87 per cent of international students return to their home country,” he said.
“If 87 per cent are going back, I don’t know where he gets this 44 per cent from.”
Mr Honeywood accused Dr Birrell of “looking narrowly” at the issue without considering the benefits overseas students brought to Australia’s economic growth.
“He never acknowledges the $34 billion injection into the economy. They have a good experience while they are here, and they are important to our international vision.
“If they come back, it’s usually as tourists, or for other reasons, not to live here. Those that do, what’s wrong with that?”
Andrew Norton, the Grattan Institute’s higher education program director, said Dr Birrell was right about overseas students being the biggest source of net migration, and also their concentration in big cities, especially Melbourne and Sydney — but there were positives to consider.
“There are substantial economic benefits as well,” he said. “There are tens of billions of dollars spent in fees and living expenses, and the flip side is that there is a large labour force as well in areas where there’s demand for it — cleaning, hospitality and Uber driver jobs.”
Dr Birrell said overseas students contributed most to population growth in Sydney and Melbourne because of the Gillard government’s “reform backtrack” in 2011 that watered down rules on English-language and financial requirements following the Knight student visa program review. Easing of previously tough conditions allowed many more overseas students to not only enter but also gain permanent residency visas while here, he said.
Contrary to popular belief, Department of Home Affairs figures showed the largest category of migrants issued permanent visas by the government in the 2017 financial year — 42,541 or 22 per cent — were those previously with higher education or vocational training visas, and those who were partners or family members.
The proportion of this ex-student category gaining permanent residency fell slightly to 18.7 per cent last year because Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton tightened some provisions.
Dr Birrell said the high overseas student intake had a bearing on unemployment in Sydney and Melbourne because local low-skill, low-income jobseekers were displaced. He claimed these overseas students had then become an exploited new “underclass of workers”.
The immigration debate has focused mainly on the number of permanent residency visas issued to offshore entrants — prompting the government’s recent cut — because of the widely held belief that these migrants have been the main source of population growth and contributed most to problems such as city congestion and job shortages.
Dr Birrell disagrees, based on his research. He found that while the government had reduced permanent entry numbers, and explored ways to ease congestion by directing such migrants to regional areas, the “far more important” issue of overseas students has been “overlooked” or “neglected”.
Dr Birrell identified “two distinct markets” of overseas students entering Australian cities in much greater numbers since 2011.
The first was the “Chinese market” attending Australia’s “Go8”-leading research universities that charged fees of $40,000 a year or more. Contrary to past years as China’s affluent class grew, most returned home after completing their courses because their degrees and experience in an English-language country provided a pathway to employment with good prospects back home.
From ABS data, he found the number of offshore student visas issued to Chinese nationals had increased from 22,638 in 2013 to 47,794 last year with most enrolment growth in Go8 universities.
The second market, Dr Birrell said, was a large group of “Indian subcontinent” students from India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka who attended mainly “non-Go8” universities and were charged $20,000 a year for courses including business, administration and IT.
From ABS data, he found the number of offshore student visas issued to these students had increased from 14,110 in 2013 to 51,305 last year.
“The main attraction to subcontinent students appears to be the access they gain to the Australian labour market, and to the possibility of obtaining a permanent resident visa,” he said.
Overseas students often rolled over their visas, then moved to a 485 visa as a pathway to seeking permanent residency while still in Australia.
Last year, 46,711 overseas students were granted a 485 visa.