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Australian international education policies risk resurrecting the types of perverse behaviour that triggered a harmful regulatory crackdown a decade ago, a top researcher has warned.
Deakin University education expert Ly Tran said Australia’s extensions to post-study work rights were recreating conditions akin to those that fuelled an explosion in demand for cooking and hairdressing courses in the late 2000s.
Private colleges emerged rapidly to meet burgeoning demand from overseas students, who often had no intention of working in those areas, triggering regulatory changes that contributed to a collapse in international enrolments – particularly from the Indian subcontinent – with the number of student visas granted to applicants in India plunging by 97 per cent between 2009 and 2011.
“We are concerned that that situation might be repeated,” Professor Tran said.
Her research suggests that institutions can expect no shortage of enrolments if they focus their provision on courses offering extended graduate work rights. Since Australia introduced two-year post-study work visas in 2013, take-up has been strongest among graduates from India, China, Nepal, Pakistan and Vietnam – the five nationalities that also topped overseas enrolments in taught master’s degrees.
The number of new students from the five countries tripled over the six years from 2012, after having barely changed over the previous five years, with Indian commencements rising fivefold.
Professor Tran said 82 per cent of Indian students cited graduate visas as a key reason for choosing Australia, compared with 74 per cent among other nationalities. “Indian students are the group that are most sensitive to access to post-study work visas and migration opportunities,” she said.
Indian student numbers are booming again since Australia’s borders reopened last December, a month after post-study work visas for taught master’s graduates were boosted from two years to three. Canberra also introduced two-year post-study visas for vocational training graduates.
An education agents’ forum in Queensland heard that growth rates from the subcontinent were exceeding those from elsewhere. “Countries around south Asia, in particular India, have proven very resilient,” Mathew Johnston, education counsel with the Australian High Commission in New Delhi, told the annual convention of the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India (AAERI).
He said enrolments from India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives were “almost at pre-pandemic levels”, with Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan already exceeding 2019 figures.
AAERI president Ravi Lochan Singh warned of unintended consequences from Australian policy settings, particularly around post-study work visas – after the government boosted them by another two years in September for graduates of courses in areas of skill shortage – and the removal of the limit on students’ working hours during term time.
“Australia has given out the message that it is full-time work and part-time study,” he told the convention. “We need to correct that.”
International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood said many overseas students would maximise their work rights by studying in areas of skill shortage and in places deemed “regional” for immigration purposes – including Canberra, Adelaide, Perth and Queensland’s Gold Coast.
He said students would then be expected to “go home” after giving Australia a decade of their lives, having studied for an average of four years and worked for another six.
“We need to provide more transparency around migration pathways for these young people whose families sacrifice so much to send their young people here in the hope that they’ll get a world-class education, but also that they might get Australian citizenship if they study hard, work hard and really put in for Australia.”