UNIVERSITIES will be allowed to entice foreign students with quick visa approvals and the right to two years of work after graduation as part of a reform package to stem further losses of overseas student income.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans said yesterday they would act on a remarkably frank report on Australia’s education export industry by former NSW politician Michael Knight.
By mid next year, foreign students keen on an Australian university degree will have access to a new, fast-track visa system.
Students from supposedly high-risk countries, such as China, no longer will have to show $75,000-plus in a bank account to prove they can cover fees and living costs.
Regardless of where they are from, would-be students will simply have to make a declaration they can support themselves.
Onerous financial requirements have been bitterly criticised as an over-reaction to past failings when migration was the motor of education, especially in private colleges.
Under yesterday’s Knight reforms, which single out universities for special treatment, foreign graduates emerging with a bachelor’s degree will be entitled to two years of work with no restriction on the type of job.
But if they want to stay for good they still have to satisfy stricter rules for skilled migration, which are much less generous to on-shore foreign students with low value skills.
University leaders yesterday welcomed the liferaft thrown them by the government.
“The reforms announced are more positive than anyone we spoke to expected [and] they come when competitors are kicking own goals _ riots in the UK and US funding cuts,” said University of NSW vice-chancellor Fred Hilmer.
“We expect a moderate lift in 2012 and a significant lift in 2013.”
In New Delhi yesterday, Professor Hilmer said education agents had told him that a streamlined student visa system was “the key to restoring our competitive position”.
Violence against students and tighter rules for skilled migration drove Indian students away while the US and Canada were making inroads on the China market.
In 2010-11, Australia’s education export earnings fell by almost 10 per cent from their $18 billion peak. Sharp declines in numbers at English language colleges and tertiary preparation courses suggest that universities are heading into tough trading conditions next year.
The education export industry complains of “a perfect storm” _ meaning rapid and unsettling changes in visa rules and skilled migration policy, the strong dollar and more competition for students overseas, and lingering reputational damage done by attacks on Indian students.
Under the Knight reforms, broadly adopted by the government, students wanting to study for a bachelor’s or higher qualification at university will find it easier and quicker to get a visa, regardless what country they are from.
“Unfortunately the worst perceptions about visa processing times are in Australia’s biggest market, China,” Mr Knight said.
From next autumn, would-be university students would benefit from an end to the requirement that they show large amounts of money upfront as evidence of capacity to pay.
Also promised next year is a comprehensive review of the so-called risk assessment levels that immigration officials use to vet would-be students. This system makes it harder for students from China and India, for example, to get visas.
Mr Knight recommended a new work rights regime for foreign students who graduate from an Australian university.
He said this had to be “administratively very simple”.
“The scheme must be one which can be marketed by the universities to prospective students as almost guaranteeing post-study work rights,” he said.
Glenn Withers, chief executive of Universities Australia, said the work entitlement was “one of the biggest breakthroughs”.
“This [work right] is as good or better than the Canadian or the US provisions,” he said.
But Monash University researcher Bob Birrell said the labour market implications had not been thought through.
Locals already were competing with thousands of former overseas students who were on bridging visas following a reform of the skilled migration rules, he said.
Stephen Connelly, from the International Education Association Australia, welcomed the Knight reforms.
He praised the extension of the new streamlined visa rules to packages including university study with foundation programs or English language courses.
“Australia has world’s best practice in pathways and preparatory programs for university studies, and this aspect of the recommendations will help cement our competitive advantage in this area,” Mr Connelly said.
He urged rapid implementation of the reform package to try to reverse the downward trend in on-shore student numbers.
Mr Knight justified special measures to boost overseas student recruitment by universities, rather than by TAFEs or private colleges, on the basis that universities were of “universally high” quality.
He also cited the “huge financial stake” of taxpayers in a university sector that had become heavily dependent on fees paid by foreign students.
He expressed surprise at the degree of dependence, pointing out that in 2009, about 25 per cent of students at the elite group of eight universities were internationals.
Andrew Norton, higher education expert at the Grattan Institute, was troubled by the favouritism shown to universities.
“My concern is that this is a big blow to the private higher education sector and the TAFES … and that this will distort the market further,” he said.
He said public universities already enjoyed a privileged position in the demand-driven system starting next year.
Adrian McComb, from the Council of Private Higher Education, said the “university centric nature” of the Knight report was disappointing.
He said this ran counter to the unified system of regulation for higher education, public and private, under the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.
Mr Knight said universities were “not perfect”.
He put universities on notice that they would be held accountable for systematic migration abuses by their students or for lower standards.
“The financial dependence which universities now have on the fees from international students could create pressure to soften entry standards and assessment standards,” he said.
He said his freeing up of student visas would be “quite dangerous” unless immigration officers put new effort into checking that applicants were genuine temporary visitors as well as genuine students.
However, Dr Birrell said the guidelines for this new student visa test were “so opaque that it’s almost impossible to apply. I cannot see how [an immigration] officer could possibly implement them.”
BY: BERNARD LANE From: The Australian September 23, 2011 12:00AM