Australia must improve its post-study employment offer

A more liberal visa regime could also help fill skills gaps as Australia looks to recover from the pandemic, says James Cauchy

October 16, 2021
A plane flies over Sydney Opera House
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The cafes and bars of Australia’s major cities, normally bustling with students and young professionals, are empty. Service and technology businesses are screaming for skilled graduates to recruit, but they can’t find any. Where has everyone gone?

Many are at home, of course. But when it comes to international students, there is another answer: they are in Canada, the US and the UK.

As confirmed by the latest instalment of IDP Connect’s New Horizons research into international student attitudes, there is still a healthy appetite for overseas study all over the world. But four out of five students who intend to pursue a degree abroad report that they would consider only in-country, on-campus options. And only 10 per cent would consider a complete online-only study option.

That is bad news for Australia given that its borders remain largely closed to international students. It no doubt explains why nearly 40 per cent of our respondents would prefer to study in Canada and 17 per cent in the US or the UK, while only 16 per cent now see Australia as their first choice.

The effects of the border closures on Australia’s A$10 billion (£5.4 billion) international education industry have also been exacerbated by the lack of a clear plan from the government on how it will facilitate the return of international students. The recent news that Victoria and New South Wales will pilot programmes for the return of a small number of international students has been received positively overseas. However, even as border restrictions are relaxed for Australian nationals, the commonwealth government has not provided a timeline for when it will have a plan for international students.

So what can we do? How can we make Australia’s international education offering attractive again?

Australia needs to remind prospective students of what we have to offer them. And it needs to remind itself of the economic value that international students can provide as the country seeks to rebound from seemingly endless lockdowns across the country.

Both of these factors come together around the issue of post-study employment. Research shows that migration incentives and post-study work rights are strong drivers of which courses and in which countries students chose to study. And our own research reveals that 65 per cent of those students who say they would consider only overseas on-campus study would be very likely to consider home-country study if it still granted them post-study work rights in the overseas country.

Offering them these rights could also help to fill the pandemic-driven skills shortage in a range of key Australian sectors. Our economy is underpinned by skilled labour, and if the country is to rebound from the pandemic, we need international students to help fill these skilled positions. If anyone doubts the need for immigrant labour, speak to someone running a service-based business right now. Or ask any hospital manager. The demand for high-quality graduates is enormous.

With the opening of the Australian border now finally on the horizon, policy settings could help bridge these gaps by providing additional employment incentives for international students who choose to study in the sectors in which Australia is in particular need of skilled workers. In our survey, almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of students considering studying science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine, allied health or hospitality courses in countries other than Australia said that migration incentives would bring Australia into their consideration. And this was also the case for 56 per cent of students in the hugely important Indian market.

Countries and institutions that can offer these pathways will be popular with students as the world continues to reopen. Australia can’t afford to continue missing out.

James Cauchy is the regional director of Australasia at IDP Education, based in Melbourne, Australia. He is responsible for IDP Education’s onshore operation in Australia, including student placement and IELTS.

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