Australia’s 39 universities are preparing for a brand new day in 2012: not only will government quotas on the number of local students they enrol be lifted, but they will also be able to recruit as many foreigners as they wish as a result of a new fast-track visa system.
In an unexpectedly generous move that surprised even sceptical vice-chancellors, the federal government decided to lift most restrictions on the issuing of student visas to overseas students applying for a university place, opening the way for a likely flood of new applications from China, India, Pakistan and other Asian countries.
Universities that agree to meet certain requirements regarding the students they admit will also have access to a new streamlined system that will speed up visa processing.
The government’s imposition of tighter visa rules two years ago was a reaction to dodgy college operators using vocational education courses as a front for their clients to obtain permanent residency visas. As tens of thousands of students enrolled in cooking and hairdressing courses in the hope of staying on after completion, a debate began to rage about Australia allowing relatively unskilled migrants with poor English into the country.
The stricter visa rules also applied to applicants seeking university places while, at the same time, the Australian dollar began rising sharply against the US dollar. These changes made obtaining a visa to study here harder and more expensive than in Canada or the US; and as the number of full-fee international students fell sharply, universities suddenly found a significant source of non-government income drying up.
In 2009, the estimated economic benefit to Australia of having nearly 500,000 fee-paying foreign students enrolled in schools, colleges and universities was AUD18 billion (US$18 billion); two years later this had fallen by AUD2 billion.
As vice-chancellor protests became louder, the government appointed a former New South Wales Labor government minister, Michael Knight, to review the situation.
In a 150-page report just released, Knight proposed a series of changes he claimed would boost the competitiveness of Australian universities in the global student marketplace. Although his 41 recommendations apply mostly to universities, the changes effectively give vice-chancellors almost total freedom to recruit as many foreign students as they want.
To the surprise of every higher education lobby group, the government accepted all the recommendations and promised to implement them before the start of second semester next year.
Among the changes expected to improve the attractiveness of Australian higher education is the scrapping of a rule requiring foreign students to prove they have enough money saved to allow them to study in the country for two years.
A student from China, by far Australia’s biggest source of international students, at present must have access to at least AUD100,000 to obtain a visa. From mid-2012, however, students will only need to declare they can afford to pay tuition and living costs. As well, those who graduate with at least a bachelor degree from a university will be able to stay on and work for up to four years and will not be tied to any particular occupation.
“All applicants will still be subject to basic requirements such as having health insurance and not being a security or health risk. And the Department of Immigration will reserve the right to look separately at applications from any group that poses a particular concern,” Knight says in his report.
“However, beyond those basic requirements, [the Department] will effectively take the university’s word that the student is suitable. Therefore universities can be confident their students will have their applications processed quickly.”
But Knight warns that “these substantial benefits” come with significant obligations: universities will be accountable for the visa outcomes of their students. If these outcomes are consistently poor, the university will be removed from the streamlined processing arrangements and prospective students will be processed under the existing rules.
Despite universities being subject to government “checks and balances and integrity measures” before gaining access to the new streamlined visa procedures, critics say the changes will open the doors to a new wave of foreign student workers who, after graduating, will compete with Australians for jobs and add to the thousands already seeking to stay on a permanent residents.
Monash University social scientist and demographer Dr Bob Birrell said past experience showed that thousands of students from poorer families who could not meet the costs of fees and living expenses were now likely to apply for university. Birrell, founder of Monash’s Centre for Population and Urban Research, said the result would be a significant influx of students seeking through a university education to gain access to the Australian labour market.
“We have had repeated examples of this in the past, starting with the English language college debacle of the late 1980s and more recently the vocational college debacle over cooks and hairdressers,” he said. “I’m amazed the Immigration Department has gone along with this because they know what happened in the past.”
Another critic, Peter Holden, said Knight’s decision to confine the changes to universities was against federal government policy, which wanted an integrated tertiary sector with a single regulatory body. “His old-school approach reinforces outdated stereotypes and elitist views of post-secondary education,” Holden said.
“Knight’s reasoning is that if things go off the rails it will be easier for the Department of Immigration to rein in universities because there are only 39 of them. This is not exactly a ringing endorsement of high quality and low risk. As Knight admits, universities are not perfect.”
Holden is director of international engagement for TAFE Directors Australia, the heads of the country’s public technical and further education colleges. Writing in The Australian newspaper’s higher education section, he said one in five students in Australia’s universities was from overseas – among the highest ratios in the world.
“For the whole public vocational education sector, including all qualification levels, the ratio is less than one in 27. In terms of stability, TAFE institutes are equally well-managed with high levels of accountability and transparency.
“The Knight review perpetuates the flawed impression the problem lies within the vocational education and training sector, as though it can be treated as one amorphous whole.”
Source: Geoff Maslen / 02 October 2011 / Issue: 191 /university world news