It’s time to shut down the foreign student rort

It’s time to shut down the foreign student rort

Last week, the Australian Population Research Institute (APRI) released a startling new report arguing that Australian universities’ heavy reliance on overseas students is crushing education standards, is oversupplying accounting, IT and engineering occupations, adding to population pressures in Sydney and Melbourne, and is shaping Australia’s foreign policy.

The reality is that the industry is too big, with too many downsides. At present, the tail is wagging the dog. Such is the importance attached to the industry’s progress that the Australian government is privileging its aspiration for continued expansion. The downsides of this growth have largely been ignored…

Because overseas students concentrate in business and commerce courses, and to a lesser extent in IT and engineering, they often constitute a majority presence in these courses. The result has been that the curriculum, teaching and assessment practices reflect the needs and capacities of these students. As we have argued, the educational standards fall far short of university claims that it is of the highest quality…

Such is the scale of the overseas student industry that it is generating wider social downsides. This was flagged by the Productivity Commission (PC) in its 2016 report on the migrant intake. The PC suggested that the number of student and other temporary visas might have to be limited because of their ‘indirect costs and benefits (externalities)’. The Commission noted that ‘educational institutions have little incentive to consider these effects’.[i]

Since this PC report much more evidence of these ‘externalities’ has emerged.

We have described the impact on immigration policy of pressure from universities to keep accounting, IT and engineering occupations on the list of occupations eligible for points-tested permanent residence skill visas. This is despite the oversupply of entry-level domestic graduates in these fields.

We also documented the remarkable contribution of higher education student visa holders to the level of NOM in NSW and Victoria (which in practice means Sydney and Melbourne – since that is where the great majority of overseas students locate). By 2016-17 this contribution reached 25 to 30 per cent of the additional population attributable to NOM in these two states.

Finally, the health of the overseas student industry is of such importance to the Australian government that it has shaped its foreign policy. The Coalition government’s statement in 2018 that it would not seek to contain China in its geopolitical conflict with the US in the Indo-Pacific appears to have been a direct result of university lobbying.

The overseas student industry should be removed from its pedestal, and its priorities balanced against these downsides.

Over the weekend, The ABC also released a detailed report on how Australian university standards have been ‘dumbed down’ by foreign students, many of whom have very poor English and leave university practically unemployable:

…an ABC investigation has uncovered an abundance of international students who describe struggling to communicate effectively in English, participate in class, or complete assignments adequately.

Academics as well as employment and education experts told the ABC that English language standards are often too low or can be sidestepped via loopholes, and that students are often put in stressful classroom situations that can lead to cheating.

Many of the students also often find themselves completing degrees which cost in excess of $100,000 that rarely lead to professional employment after graduation.

Despite this, international students continue to arrive in record numbers, with the most recent figures showing that there are now some 753,000 international students in Australia and 380,000 of them in tertiary studies.

It was while managing a master’s program at RMIT University that media academic Jenny Weight said she became alarmed by the number of international students struggling with basic communication and in some cases had studied “absolutely no English”.

“I have read a lot of assignments written by international students which appear to have been written in Chinese and then translated using Google,” she told the ABC…

“One of the struggles was to try and get our English entry level standards lifted higher, but the pressures on universities to make money from international students is such that they don’t want to, because that will knock out a lot of potential students.”

International education expert Michael Fay said that English is one of the first quality controls for students that is vulnerable to lax standards.

“A lot of the time the people who are in charge of the policy don’t actually understand the English language issues well enough and assume that students are going to somehow, through osmosis, improve their English as they go along through the program,” he said…

Xiaolan Tang is a former international student who now works in China recruiting local students for overseas study — she told the ABC that it’s becoming harder and harder to sell people on Australian degrees.

“People question the quality of Australian universities when students who get refused by top universities in other countries can still easily be accepted by the same level Australian universities,” she told the ABC.

“They think that the entry threshold for Australian universities is set quite low.”

Twenty nine-year-old Zhao Chen studied architecture at the University of Melbourne in 2014 and told the ABC that she found Australian universities’ admission standards weak.

Back in August, The lobby group representing foreign students in Australia – the Council for International Students in Australia (CISA) – admitted that many foreign students study in Australia to gain permanent residency:

The Council for International Students in Australia said foreign potential students were attracted to Australia by the possibility of migrating here.

But Mr Dutton’s strong views on border policy and his statement that Australia should reduce its intake of migrants “where we believe it is in our national interest” would tip the balance for some would-be students…

The national president of CISA, Bijay Sapkota, said… “For people coming from low socio-economic backgrounds there has to be a value proposition. If they go home they will not get value. So there has to be a possibility of immigration.”

He said international students were not satisfied with the way Mr Dutton had run the immigration portfolio, where some visas were at risk of being closed down at any time…

The reality is that Australia’s education system has become an integral part of the immigration industry – effectively a way for foreigners to buy backdoor permanent residency to Australia.

Dr Jenny Stewart, Honorary Professor of Public Policy at the University of New South Wales, drew the direct link between permanent residency and foreign student demand in her excellent article Hooked on Students:

If you work in a university, you cannot help but be aware of the extent to which universities are dependent upon income from international undergraduate students. Many of us working in the sector realised that it was not for any intellectual brilliance on our part that the students came, but because for many, coming to Australia as a student was a significant step on the path to becoming an Australian resident…

What do these undergraduate students do once they have completed their qualification? Many, understandably, wish to remain in Australia…

With appropriate advice and support and the necessary persistence, it would seem to be possible for just about any international student who is a graduate of an Australian university to become, eventually, a permanent resident…

International students are also partly behind the ballooning in bridging visas, which have blown-out by 40,000 over the past year, as well as by 90,000 since 2014:
Earlier this month, it was revealed that foreign students have been ‘gaming’ Australian immigration system by appealing their decisions en masse to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) to extend their stay:
The number of outstanding student visa refusal cases before the tribunal at the end of May totalled 8603. This compared with 4394 active cases at the end of June 2017 — an increase of more than 95 per cent in a little under a year. The 8603 active student visa refusal cases represented 30 per cent of all active migration cases…

Victorian Liberal MP Jason Wood, the chair of the joint standing committee on migration, said the backlog of cases at the AAT was “outrageous” and argued that the appeals process was “working in favour of the visa holder and not necessarily the Australian taxpayer”. He said foreign students could game the system to extend their stay by several years — an outcome which he said would deny Australian citizens more part time jobs.

Basically, Australia’s university sector has become a giant rent-seeking business, just like the superannuation industry.

Rather than clipping the ticket on the deluge of funds coming in via compulsory superannuation, the universities sector instead clips the ticket on the deluge of foreign students arriving in the hope of transitioning to permanent residency, as well as gaining direct government funding via the demand driven system pertaining to domestic students.

Instead of focusing on providing a high quality education and upskilling Australia’s population, the universities sector has become focussed on pushing through as many students as possible – both domestic and foreign – in order to maximise fees and profit. Again, this has parallels to the superannuation industry, whose focus is on maximising funds under management and fees, rather than achieving strong returns for members.

The end result is the erosion of standards and too many university graduates chasing too few professional jobs.

About the only winners from Australia’s rent-seeking university system are vice-chancellors, whose pay has already exploded to an average of $1 million on the back of the student explosion (both domestic and foreign), at the same time as university students are stuck paying off expensive and increasingly worthless degrees, taxpayers are stuck writing-off unpayable debts, and the broader population is suffering under the never-ending population crush.

It’s time to put a leash on the university sector, starting with removing the link between foreign students studying at university and gaining work visas and permanent residency, as well as lifting entry standards. Let our universities compete on quality and value alone.

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