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Morrison, Dutton and the plight of over 600,000 stranded overseas students

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Image by Dan Jensen

Australia’s international education industry has boomed over the past 20 years. Now that it has all turned to tears, can Morrison and Dutton continue to wash their hands of the plight of overseas students they encouraged to come to Australia?

Australian governments have since the Colombo Plan of the 1950s wrestled with how best to manage policy on overseas students — including whether they should be allowed to extend stay after course completion and/or become permanent residents.

Overseas students have since the Chinese student arrivals of the late 1980s been at the core of Australian immigration policy challenges. Nevertheless, overseas students are also a primary reason Australia has the youngest population in the developed world. The benefits of that are often understated.

But with the coronavirus recession hitting overseas students and education institutions hard, there is no shortage of "I told you so" stories.

Not just from the usual anti-immigration suspects but also from university critics such as Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian in an article titled ‘Universities get lesson in risk, but will they learn?’.

Albrechtsen criticises the international education industry for relying too much on students from China and not having an adequate risk plan, as if international education is Australia’s only industry reliant on China or that it was the only industry that did not plan for a one in one hundred year pandemic.

The ABC makes similar criticisms based on the views of Associate Professor Salvatore Babones who says universities were increasingly getting around English language requirements through the use of so-called foundation courses.

Understandably, the various international education lobby groups argue the Federal Government should do more to help universities that are now struggling. They do so without accepting any responsibility for the situation universities have put themselves into by increasingly recruiting students with limited English language skills and marginal ability to afford the fees and living expenses.

While the Commonwealth points to the legal requirement for students to have sufficient finances for the first 12 months of their visa, that ignores the fact the majority of students and temporary graduates have been in Australia more than 12 months. The argument also ignores the fact it was the Commonwealth that delegated responsibility for checking these requirements to many education providers.

The Commonwealth, as well as state and territory governments, have for years been happy to crow about their role in promoting growth of the industry: the number of people it employs; the range of businesses it supports; and the export income it earns. They were, of course, also happy with the additional income, property, payroll and GST revenue the industry put into their coffers.

But with over 600,000 current students and another 100,000 former students on temporary graduate visas now in deep trouble, only a few state/territory governments have been prepared to step up to provide students with some limited support.

The Commonwealth has been steadfast in its position — "go home", it says, with no thought to how difficult it is for students to get home. Or to the Commonwealth’s own role in encouraging the students to come to Australia in the first place. Or to the implications for the Australian international education industry’s post-crisis reputation.

The Commonwealth seems oblivious to the implications of a marked shrinkage in Australian universities’ teaching and research capacity because of an abrupt halt in student fee revenue. The loss of overseas student revenue will not just affect overseas students but also domestic students and research funding as fees from overseas students cross-subsidise both.

Then there are the tens of thousands of Australian businesses and many more workers in our major capital cities whose livelihoods depend on delivering services to overseas students: grocery shops; coffee shops; cleaning businesses; clothes shops; bookstores; accommodation services; trades services.

They all face a bleak future because international education will be among the last to recover from the crisis. This will not be just because of travel restrictions. International education was the last to recover from the recession of the early 1990s.

So how did we get into this pickle?

The origins of the latest surge in overseas student numbers go back to a 2012 review by former Olympics Minister Michael Knight and released by then Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

Knight recommended increased delegation of responsibility to education providers for checking students’ English language skills and whether they had access to sufficient funds to live in Australia without excessive reliance on local employment. The number of education providers who would be delegated that responsibility progressively widened over the subsequent five-six years.

Many education providers further delegated the task of checking English language, academic and financial requirements to offshore education agents of dubious integrity.

Knight also recommended a more flexible regime for ensuring students comply with course requirements. That led to a sharp reduction in students having their visa cancelled for failing to meet course requirements.

By using the 2014 Budget to lock-in a migration program of 190,000 per annum, then former immigration minister Scott Morrison signalled a clear intention to accelerate growth of overseas student numbers who would subsequently be encouraged to apply for skilled migration. There was no other way the Government could keep delivering a migration program of that size and composition.

A more facilitative student visa policy, limited enforcement of visa compliance and with clear pathways to permanent residence led to rapid growth in the number of student visa holders in Australia (see Chart 1).

Source: data.gov.au

The most significant indicator of emerging problems from this policy approach was a surge in registration of private VET colleges from 2014 by the Australian Skills Quality Agency (ASQA). That was accompanied by a sharp rise in private VET colleges poaching students from universities, often on the basis of cheaper fees and lower course and English language requirements.

Private VET colleges have a long history of recruiting students from people already in Australia, usually on a higher education visa; undertaking a foundation course or on a working holiday.

From 2013-14 to 2018-19, the VET sector represented around 10% of all offshore visas issued while the higher education and post-graduate sectors represented around 60% of offshore student visas. Over the same period, the portion of onshore student visas issued to the VET sector increased from an already high 38% to over 44%.

It was not until well into 2018 that the alarm bells started to ring for ASQA, which moved to significantly ramp up cancellation of VET college registrations and make new registrations much more difficult. By that stage, however, a very large number of overseas students had acquired questionable VET qualifications and had moved onto a temporary graduate visa.

Former Education Minister Simon Birmingham increased English language requirements for students moving from an English language or foundation course to a higher education or VET course — but this appears to have had limited impact on student visa numbers.

It was not until September 2019 that the Department of Home Affairs finally announced a substantial tightening of offshore student visa applications from India and Nepal for second-tier universities and VET colleges. That led to a sharp decline in offshore student visas from those two countries in the last six months of 2019, although offshore student visa numbers from some other countries increased (for example, Colombia).

While the Government had delayed action to tighten student visa requirements, it had much earlier started tightening pathways for students and temporary graduate visa holders to skilled temporary residence and permanent migration. That included reducing the size of the migration program.

In other words, the Federal Government allowed student numbers to continue to build up while blocking many pathways to permanent residence. History shows that is the wrong way around.

Effectively, former students and temporary graduates now have only one viable path to permanent residence — nomination by a state or territory government. The design of those visas themselves has some serious problems that will further expose provisional visa holders to exploitation and abuse — something that is already at endemic levels.

With a very weak labour market, however, it is likely state and territory governments will wind back the number of people they nominate.

The final effect of all this is to leave a very large number of students and temporary graduates in immigration limbo and possible destitution. Most are now unable to access permanent residences, unable to get employment and unable to get home.

Given the extensive role Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton, Simon Birmingham and other ministers have played in creating this situation, can they continue to wash their hands of the plight of overseas students and temporary graduates?

Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration, currently undertaking a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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