Why we should focus on creating new Australians, not slashing international student numbers

Published 14/03/2024

Australia’s reputation and economy will take a big hit from the Albanese government’s plans to reduce international student numbers through its recently announced Migration Strategy.

It’s the latest example of an unfair policy change in the treatment of international students that focuses on the symptom without fixing the cause.

International students invest heavily in coming to study in Australia because they want to have a better career and a nicer place to live. For many, the move also exposes them to cultural diversity.

Coming from group societies like China and India, they learn to be independent and take life into their own hands. They become the creators of their own futures.

From the government’s perspective, international students bring tens of billions of dollars into the education sector through tuition fees. There is also soft diplomacy at play because positive student experiences strengthen national bonds and influence trade decisions.

But nothing is more important than positive word of mouth referrals because students who have bad experiences will tell many people about them. There is so much at stake for many of these students coming to Australia in search of a new life funded by the life savings of their parents.

In recent years, many thousands have been caught up in changes that shouldn’t apply to those who have already made important life decisions based on previous policy settings.

Such policy changes include shifting criteria for the assessment of permanent residency, intake freezes during the pandemic and scrapping a list of courses that gave students additional working rights.

These broken government promises are what created this loop of ‘permanent temporary’ students in the first place.

It leaves many frustrated graduates working in low-quality jobs because they don’t have the right residency status to be considered for a role in their field of study.

There should be greater recognition that international students who stay on a residency pathway are better assets for the Australian economy than skilled migrants who come in with none of that cultural exposure.

Unfortunately, the government just sees international students as an economic boost when they should be creating new Australians.

The final piece of this puzzle is dealing with the ‘dodgy’ agents that people like to blame for the current situation. All agents should to be managed proactively, using available data to measure their performance and eradicate the fraudulent behaviour of a small minority.

This requires access to the right tools so that performance can be viewed in near real time, because otherwise the response will come too late. Prevention is better than cure.

“The effective measurement of agent performance shouldn’t stop once a student has paid a course fee”

Key metrics include how many applications an agent submits, how many of those applications lead to an offer and how many of those offers are accepted by a student who goes on to pay the fee.

If an agent sends 100 letters, but only five get offers and none of them are accepted, it’s easy to make an informed judgement of that agent’s performance rather than relying on lazy rhetoric that tars all agents with the same brush.

The effective measurement of agent performance shouldn’t stop once a student has paid a course fee.

We should be looking at how many get visas, how many stick to the course they were accepted into and how many go on to graduate. Agents who are found to be acting unethically should be issued with warnings and ultimately have their contracts cancelled if their behaviour doesn’t change.

Government needs to provide a transparent, measurable and predictable visa system because grey areas encourage fraudulent behaviour.

This should be linked to a permanent residency pathway that creates future Australian citizens and brand ambassadors. If these simple measures were put in place, most of the problem that has convinced the government to slash international student numbers would go away.

About the author: Naresh Gulati is founder and CEO of Ascent One.

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