FORMER NSW Olympics minister Michael Knight has glossed over the role that official policy played in the distortion of skilled migration by overseas students.
Mr Knight, who is carrying out an independent review of the student visa program, puts the blame on “non-genuine” students seeking permanent residence.
“Regrettably this expansion of non-genuine student numbers was facilitated by some agents and institutions whose business practices were highly dubious, sometimes illegal,” he says in his discussion paper.
But Monash University researcher Bob Birrell says Mr Knight “doesn’t acknowledge it was successive governments that set this policy up and brought about this outcome”.
In 2001, the Howard government allowed overseas students to stay after graduation and apply for skilled migration, laying the foundation for the rapid growth of an export education industry linked to permanent residency.
Since 2008, the government has progressively tightened policy, all but removing the PR carrot from the overseas student industry.
The Knight paper speaks of widespread agreement that some education providers and agents “did manipulate the system primarily for migration outcomes rather than educational outcomes”.
In a sarcastic blog post Sydney immigration lawyer Michael Jones says: “The government, of course, bears no responsibility for all of this.
“The easiest group to blame are the students themselves, some of whom, the [Knight] paper tells us, ‘came to Australia to undertake an education in order to gain permanent residence without any intention of undertaking employment related to their course of study’.
“Of course they did. That was the product they were sold, with the full blessing of the Australian government. It wasn’t those corrupt agents who created the 885 and 886 visas [for overseas students], it was the Australian government.
“They allowed the fast-buck stakeholders to grow into the country’s third largest export industry, fuelled by the savings and borrowings of aspirational families in India, China, Nepal, Vietnam.”
Knight says his paper was not meant to cover “all the issues in this very complex area”. “It is meant to stimulate discussion, not pre-empt it.”
The closing date for comment is April 15. Melbourne University’s Lesleyanne Hawthorne says her research suggests students in professional courses such as engineering do indeed want to work in those fields, in contrast to students in trade courses such as bricklaying, hairdressing and cooking.
The Knight paper defines a genuine student as one who intends to come to Australia on a temporary basis to study, but acknowledges students accounted for between 14 and 22 per cent of the skills migration program over the past five years.
Birrell says most overseas students in accounting, for example, “probably did have in mind the possibility of PR”.
“You can’t dismiss anybody who subsequently sought PR as not a genuine student.”
Hawthorne says: “Many students are genuine students, they’re seeking a qualification. They may make pragmatic decisions about the qualification they do, to lock in PR options”.