The number of temporary migrants in Australia booms after falls during the pandemic. Current and former international students form the largest component of this group.
This is new from the federal government migration assessment found that “hard choices are needed” to halt Australia’s increase in “permanently temporary” migrants. These are people who have been living in the country for a long time, but have no way to permanent residency or citizenship.
The review, led by former senior civil servant Martin Parkinson, made many recommendations.
They include changes to help international students get jobs and stay in Australia, particularly those with “high potential”. It also advised the federal government to “revise the drivers” to minimize the number of international students who become “permanent temporary” migrants in the first place.
This will require the government to take a closer look at the role universities and colleges play in migration to ensure that we have both a sustainable migration system and a thriving education sector.
Read more: Migration Review warns Australia is becoming a nation of ‘permanently temporary’ residents
The age of the temporary migrant
Temporary migrants have a visa that allows them to stay in Australia for an extended period of time, but they are not permanent migrants or Australian citizens. The recent Migration Survey found that the increase in “permanently temporary” visa holders has “damaged” Australia and migrants, noting both insecurity and the “risk of exploitation of migrant workers”.
International students have led the growth of this group. Since 2011, the number of current and former international students who are temporary migrants has increased from about 275,000 to more than 765,000.
Read more: How to improve the migration system for the good of temporary migrants – and Australia
Due to the pandemic, the number of international students in Australia fell. Since the reopening of the borders in December 2021, the number of international students in Australia has risen again record levels.
Signs suggest that the number will continue to increase. The number of approved visas for international students is also increasing record levels.
The government has also committed to expanding labor rights after graduation for international graduates. These rights allow former students of certain courses to stay for a period of time after their course. This can range from 18 months to six years.
Why education providers are key
Educational institutions play a crucial role in stimulating the supply of temporary migrants. Enrolling in university or vocational training may allow access to longer visas.
For example, a working holiday visa enables young people from some countries to live and work in Australia for a year. By enrolling in certain courses, a much larger group of people from more countries can access extended visas. This can effectively enable a person to stay in Australia for up to ten years.
It is therefore difficult to distinguish education decisions from migration decisions. In many ways, an international student buys not only a course, but also a multi-year visa.
Our educational institutions benefit from this scheme. Courses that are most popular are those that entitle students to a post-graduation visa or to which they are aligned permanent migration routes. Undoubtedly, paths to temporary and permanent migration lead to many registrations.
A university can also get two to three times as much money for an international student as it does for a domestic student.
Read more: Immigration system set for overhaul after review’s damning findings
The benefits of international students are not shared
Australian students also benefit from this scheme. It means that our educational institutions have more resources and better facilities.
But the benefits of international education are often concentrated in particular institutions. In the university sector, it is the larger, more prestigious universities that receive the most revenue from international students.
In vocational education and training, the concentration of international students is even greater.
Analysis by the Mitchell Institute shows that in 2021, of the ten vocational education and training institutions with the highest international enrollments, nine were private colleges largely focused on international students. In five of these colleges, 100% of enrollments were international students. These enrollments are largely for courses such as business administration, cooking and hospitality.
This means Australian students in our already underfunded professional sector are missing out on the benefits of international education.
Time for another look
Before the pandemic, international education brought about A$40 billion to the Australian economy. At its peak in 2019, institutions received about $16 billion a year, up from about $2 billion in 2002.
The migration analysis has made clear how the increase in temporary migrants is a by-product of this growth. If we want to get a better grip on the total migrant pool, we need to look at the role of universities and colleges.
These may not be easy discussions. But they can start by exploring the role of educational institutions in the migration process. This could mean better use of these universities and colleges in the process of identifying “high potential” international students who should be retained in Australia according to the migration assessment.
Meanwhile, international students remain vital to the health of our education system. We need more targeted policies to ensure that the benefits of international education reach those parts of the education system that need it most.
Read more: The University Agreement plans for the next 30 years: what major issues should it address?