Dan O'Heirity

The Loss of International Students Continues to Trouble Australia

Confession. I’m pretty much sick of reading about a) the plight of our poor international students who have not been able to return to study in Australia and b) the sorry state of Australian universities that have over exposed themselves to the international market to the extent that they are now in severe financial trouble and sacking staff left, right and centre to try to save money. However, I did come across a most interesting article from “The Conversation” which provides interactive maps showing the percentage of international students living in suburbs across Australia. The opening line of the piece reads, “International students made up more than 30% of the population in some Australian suburbs, before borders closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that international students are going to contribute an awful lot of money to the local economy when they make up 30% of the population in a suburb. In the bigger picture, “The Conversation” reports that not only do international students, “contribute A$38 billion to the economy annually and support 130,000 jobs (at any one time), they are also important members of local communities”.

Not surprisingly, international student numbers, expressed as a percentage of the population, are highest in cities. For example, international students account for 38% of the population in central Melbourne. International students make up 39% of the population in the neighbouring suburb of Carlton. The percentage figures are lower in suburbs further from city centres and lower still in rural areas. Furthermore, international students spend 36% of their income on retail and entertainment and a further 36% on property which includes rental properties. Apparently international students bring many other benefits to the Australian community. For example, they volunteer and add to Australia’s cultural diversity. The Conversation also reports that students enhance Australia’s international standing and the points to a research report entitled, “The Social Impact of International Education“. However, that is not my reading of the report. For example, the first section of the report questions the place of international education in the context of a resurgent nationalism in Australia.

Why an Interest for Australian Immigration Data

My albeit brief foray into the world of international student data raised a couple of questions for me. The first question had to do with the economic benefits of having international students in Australia and, be extension, any economic benefits that might come from international students remaining in Australia for employment. A second thought that came to my mind had to do with the diversity of international students studying in Australia. That is, do they come from lots of different countries or just from a few different countries. Finally, my look at data for international students studying in Australia prompted me to think more generally about the question of immigration to Australia. I realized that I did not have much of a clue about how the Australian government manages immigration to Australia. Who is allowed to immigrate to Australia? One what grounds are they eligible to enter Australia? Can the families of immigrants coming to Australia for work also enter Australia? This post will not comprehensively answer all these questions. However, it will point to extensive data sources that would provide all the answers for someone deeply interested in pursing these questions.

International Student Employment in Australia

Data from an Australian Government Treasury Department publication related to international students granted permanent residency and a pathway to citizenship in Australia can be found on page 21 of the report. Page 21 reads, “A much smaller share of those arriving as international students eventually transition to permanent residence . . . Of the 1.6 million individuals examined between 2000-01 and 2013-14, 16 per cent eventually transitioned to permanent residence.” This seems to me to be a relatively small percentage figure for international students who transitioned to permanent residence and it would would give an actual figure of 256,000 international students who became permanent residents in the timeframe under consideration. However, there is another way to interrogate international student data. The previously cited research report entitled, “The Social Impact of International Education“, states that according to a survey carried out between 2012-2014, round half of the international graduates were found to be working in their home country, with some 4 in 10 working in Australia.

A couple of points come to my mind here. First, a number of these students were likely in employment on the basis of a temporary visa rather than as a result of having been grated residency in Australia. The temporary visa could of course eventually lead to the granting of residency. Secondly there is a question of the fiscal contribution of these students to the Australian economy. According to “The Social Impact of International Education” report, these students were employed in the following sectors: education and training; finance and insurance services: health care and social assistance: and professional, scientific and technical services. I’m not going to look up the likely incomes for these sorts of jobs but it would be fair to say that these international students are being reasonably well paid and that they are contributing reasonable amount of the Australian taxation system. In other words, these international students are having a positive fiscal impact in Australia.

The Management of Migration by the Australian Government

According to Australia’s Department of Home Affairs website, Australia has, “the Permanent Migration Program that includes a skill stream and a family stream . . . The skill stream of the Permanent Migration Program includes skilled migrants together with their family members.” Migrants can enter Australia through the skilled stream by e.g. being sponsored by employers or by arriving independently with qualifications that are on the skilled occupation list. They can also arrive as family of skilled migrants. In terms of the number of migrants allowed into Australia each year, I would refer you to an Australian Government Treasury Report entitled, “Shaping a Nation: Population Growth and Immigration Over Time“. Page 18 of the report states that Permanent Migration Program has been set at 190,000 migrants per year for the last six years which would cover the period from 2014-2020. Page 18 of the Australian Government Treasury Report also states that, “In 2016-17, almost 39 per cent of skilled migrants were employer sponsored, [and that] almost 55 per cent arrived independently with qualifications“.

Two decades ago, skilled migrants and their families accounted for around 30 to 40 per cent of the Permanent Migration Program. They now account for nearly 70 per cent of the overall migration intake. Furthermore, and drawing again on page 18 of the report, in “2016-17, over 85 per cent of family stream migrants were the partners of Australian residents, and over 13 per cent were parents.” The report that I’ve been considering so far looks at immigration to Australia over time. For example, the report presents data going back to 1901 and anyone interested in Australia’s immigration pattern over a long time-frame should reference this report. However, I’m now going to take a look at some recent data from 2018-2019 for Australia’s permanent migration outcome under the Migration and Child Program can visit a government web page, “Australia’s Permanent Migration Outcome: The Migration and Child Program, 2018–19“. It makes for an interesting read. For example, for the period under consideration, total skill stream visa places awarded to Indian immigrants were 28,743 places. Total Skill Stream visa places awarded to Chinese immigrants were 14,964. Indian immigrants were given 4,864 Total Family and Child visa places whilst Chinese immigrants were awarded 9,315 places.

The data from Australia’s Permanent Migration Outcome: The Migration and Child Program, 2018–19” has been interpreted in a publication from the Australian government entitled, “2018-19 Migration Program Report“. Data in this report aligns with the data on the government web page reporting that, “The Skill stream outcome was 109,713 places, which accounted for 69.8 per cent of the total 2018-19 Migration Program outcome (excluding Child stream)” and that within the Family Stream, “The Partner category had an outcome of 39,918 places. It comprised 84.5 per cent of the 2018-19 Family stream outcome.” However, the “2018-19 Migration Program Report” runs to 56 pages and will provide you with a much more nuanced breakdown of the data. This breakdown is important for many reasons. For example, if you look at page 28 of the ” 2018-2019 Migration Program Report” you will see that migrants under the different streams have a different fiscal impact on Australia. Whilst skilled migrants, and indeed their partners, have a positive fiscal impact, the parents of migrants having a negative fiscal impact.

The Majority of Migrants Come From China and India

If you take a look at the 2018-2019 Migration Program Report, India had the largest number of migrants coming to Australia with 33,611 places and China came in second with 24,282 places. Get this, the UK came in third at 13,689 places. If you go to page 17 of the report that I referenced earlier, Shaping a Nation: Population Growth and Immigration Over Time, you will see that in the 1996 census the number of migrants born in China was 119,000. China ranked 7th in the list of top 20 countries of origin for migrants. In the 2016 census, the number of migrants born in China was 526,000 and migrants from China ranked 3rd in the list of top 20 countries of origin for migrants. That’s a percentage increase of 342%. I’ve reported the next set of figures before but it is worth noting again that the quick stats for the 2016 census figures have the number of residents identifying with Chinese ancestry at 1,213,903 or 3.9 % of the Australian population. The number of residents born in China stands at 509,555 or 2.2 % of the population. This figure obviously excludes the number of Chinese students studying in Australia at any particular point in time.

In conclusion, Australia is a diverse nation in terms of its residents and in terms of the student population. This diversity has social, cultural and fiscal implications for Australia and arguments around immigration patterns are complex. However, at time when China is becoming increasingly belligerent and arrogant on the world stage and at a time when China is openly punishing Australia for calling for an independent inquiry into Covid-19, one has to ask whether Australia should continue to allow Chinese immigration at the rates that we have seen over the past few years. There are two arguments here. First, China has openly said that it will discourage its students from studying in Australia and that it will stop its citizens from visiting Australia. Australia needs to send an equally strong message that Australia can put an end to Chinese immigration to Australia. Secondly, in sending this message to Beijing, Australia will be implicitly sending a message that it intends to stop China’s interference in Australian politics and in Australian universities. Sure, there will be an economic cost to Australia but let’s face it, Beijing is already imposing that economic cost through its’ bullying of Australia.

First Published June 16th, 2020

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