Should the government change migration laws to suit universities?

Australia’s universities are in a bit of a panic. With international student applications down, and much bigger drops in the ‘feeder’ colleges, the next few years are looking particularly grim.

While issues such as the high dollar, student safety and more intense competition for even-more broke universities in the UK and US are affecting the international student market, changes to skilled migration rules are also causing grief.

Most university courses that were being used as backdoor routes to permanent migration are still on the skilled occupations list used by the immigration department (the vocational education sector has not been so lucky), but the number of visas available in this category has dropped significantly. The emphasis has shifted to employer-sponsored migrants. So international students now need to find an employer to support them, creating much more uncertainty.

Yesterday the Group of Eight lobby group joined other university groups in calling on the government to ‘fix’ the problems.

There are some side-issues such as visa processing times that should be remedied. But it’s not clear to me that the sector has made a convincing case for a return to the old migration policies. Most former overseas students were not working in their field of study. A 2006 analysis of migrants 18 months after their arrival found the skills match for former overseas students at the following levels: accounting 35%, business/commerce 5%, education 31%, engineering 23%, IT 35%, law 50%, medicine 40%, nursing 90%. So really only nursing was scoring a high rate of skills match. Unemployed/not in labour force was only 9%, so most were working – just not in the occupations they had trained for.

If there isn’t going to be a high rate of direct course-employment match, it’s hard to see what the migration rationale is for giving graduates in some courses preferential treatment. Education providers are unnecessary middle-men taking a cut from selling general migration visas. If we are going to have an easy-access migration policy, open it to anyone.

After years of amazing growth driven by migration possibilities, Australian education is going to have to re-adjust and sell its services on their merits, rather than the chance to stay in Australia.

9 thoughts on “Should the government change migration laws to suit universities?

  1. “If there isn’t going to be a high rate of direct course-employment match, it’s hard to see what the migration rationale is for giving graduates in some courses preferential treatment”
    It’s hard to see the rationale for many of the government rules, and until that changes, I can’t blame universities for complaining about anything they feel like. After working in Italy a bit this year I got to see what cash starved universities with crazy rules look like that arn’t so good at finding alternative money sources, and it isn’t very pretty for anybody involved (students and staff), so taking away a source of income without allowing universities to generate others really seems like a bad idea to me.
    “accounting 35%, business/commerce 5%, education 31%, engineering 23%, IT 35%, law 50%, medicine 40%, nursing 90%.”
    I find it really hard to believe those figures — surely more than 40% of doctors are working as doctors. Do these figures include further study etc.?


  2. Conrad – Unis love a good whinge, and from a purely self-interested point of view it would be good to get more cash from whatever source (my U of M job would go in any serious downturn). But the post was from a good public policy perspective.

    Looking at the table again, the medicine result is not regarded as statistically significant, so presumably there were too few doctors in the sample (of about 10,000 migrants who arrived between December 2004 and March 2005).


  3. Though I agree with you that it’s not first best policy, which would be near open migration to English speaking graduates of real universities (at least those without contageous diseases or criminal records), the preference for local grads has certain advantages.
    Preferencing those who graduate from Australian universities is a way of ‘selling’ residency/citizenship, which voters are pretty squeamish about doing directly. Locals could auction off PR places to those who meet the conditions, and in so doing make a lot of money, but for whatever reason we don’t. I wish we would, because if we sold the right to be here, we would probably take a lot more people!
    Giving preference to grads who have already managed in Australia for 3-5 years also filters (for free) for those who have already adjusted to Australia’s language and culture, are diligent and intelligent enough to finish a degree, already have social and work networks, and fit in well enough to want to stay.
    If the skilled migration system allows us to increase immigration by getting migrants who don’t inspire a public backlash and let us turning a buck on it without feeling bad about it, I wouldn’t complaint too much. 🙂


  4. Interesting post Andrew. Do you have on hand the skills-match for domestic students over the same degrees? Is it a problem significantly tied to the quality/nature of international students or a larger tertiary education/market problem.

    It could be evidence of people doing meaningless degrees simply to get here (and paying through the nose for it), but also suggests problems post-education.


  5. Robert – Yes, you are right that having successfully spent several years here is likely to be a useful sorting mechanism for identifying migrants who are likely to fit in. They still get points for this – it is just that given the limited number of visas in the relevant category it is no guarantee that they will be accepted any time soon.


  6. Interesting perspective. A couple issues, the low unemployment rate must indicate that graduates are getting jobs – does it really matter what sort of job it is at this stage of their life – remember the number of migrants who started off working in unskilled jobs only to become entrepreneurs and even start to become employers themselves.
    The stats regarding the number of graduates working in their field of study is also a little misleading. Most degrees are 3 or 4 years in length not 18 months – no wonder the figures are low – these guys are still studying, and even if they have finished their degree, what employment have they moved into and are they undertaking post graduate studies? Also remember the type of casual work these guys are in – taxi driving, hospitality etc – looks as though another skills shortage heading our way.
    The other issue is that an accounting or business graduate can go into any number of jobs or careers. Does it matter that they aren’t going straight into a book keeping role? Yes we do have a skills shortage in Accounting, but maybe we also ought to be encouraging our own exit VCE graduates and young people to consider these career options themselves. I know at my own Institute courses such as Illustration or Music are by far more popular with young people than business courses – I don’t want to devalue a music degree but how many musicians does our society really need? Also, what of the opportunity cost – we already have a shortage in the trade areas and the mining industry is drawing many young people with promises of earning huge incomes.
    To become the clever country we need to invest more in our education system – be it pre or post VCE. Employers must realise that they are gaining a benefit through employing graduates with a post secondary qualification. Do we see them contribute to the direct cost of running a TAFE or a university?
    Does it really matter that an international Accounting graduate gains employment working as a kitchen hand in a restaurant only to own the restaurant in a few years time? We need to think long term not pander to the populist scare mongering that many people seem to take great delight in indulging themselves with.
    Please let’s not forget that we are all migrants to this country (unless of course you are an indigenous Australian). Our migration programs are what made us who we are today.


  7. The overall employment rates were good – but given the tenuous or non-existent relationship with the formal qualification that would suggest that there is no particular reason for privileging certain disciplines. There are two issues here – migration in general, and migration via particular routes, in this case Australian qualifications in specific areas. The outcomes justify the former much more strongly than the latter.

    The 18 months was from the time of getting a permanent visa. So typically it would be at least 4.5 years after they first arrived.


  8. But this would require the parasitical rent seekers who run our universities to actually provide a proper product to the students rather than just relying on being an overpaid middleman as you say.


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