Australian international student caps ‘will skew enrolments’

‘Shockingly bad legislation’ gives ministers power to favour certain disciplines

五月 17, 2024
University students queue
Source: iStock

Australia’s proposal to cap overseas enrolments risks fuelling a wave of would-be migrants while making international student flows susceptible to ministerial whims, experts say.

Christopher Ziguras, director of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education, warned of unintended consequences from the government’s plan to favour courses in certain disciplines.

“[The] push to align international enrolments with Australian skill needs is going to end in tears,” Professor Ziguras said. “If it works, you’re going to have a much bigger number of international graduates expecting permanent residency, and those numbers are pretty quickly going to swamp the intake targets for the migration programme.”

He said a “huge boom” in accountancy enrolments in the early 2000s, and in cooking and hairdressing courses later that decade, illustrated the dangers. “Enrolments tend to surge in programmes that lead most easily into permanent residency. That’s happened a number of times in different fields and [is] likely to happen again,” Professor Ziguras said.

Newly drafted legislation empowers the education minister to exempt courses “addressing Australia’s critical skill needs, such as teaching and nursing”, from proposed institutional caps. The minister could also cancel courses that “provide limited value to Australia’s skills and training needs and priorities”, or because they lack quality or are not “in the public interest”.

The enrolment caps could take many forms, according to the bill’s 177-page explanatory document. They could apply to individual courses, “classes” of courses or entire institutions.

Universities and colleges could face simultaneous caps on their total enrolments and enrolments within multiple courses. The caps could also apply to “classes” of institutions – for example, all institutions in particular cities, all newly registered colleges or all public universities.

If institutions exceed their caps, the relevant courses – or potentially all of their courses – could be deregistered.

The document also suggests an intent to apply a system-wide cap on international enrolments. “The allocation of student visas for overseas students will be limited and competitive amongst applicants…[so] that…enrolments are allocated beneficially for Australia’s interest,” it says. “These provisions give flexibility to the minister to make an instrument that will appropriately reflect the government’s policy objectives at any given time.”

Introducing the bill into parliament, education minister Jason Clare stressed the need to administer international education “carefully” to protect it from “bad actors” and “deliver sustainable growth”.

“We have to ensure that we manage the international education industry in a way that delivers the greatest benefit to Australia, whilst maintaining its social licence from the Australian people,” he said.

“This is shockingly bad legislation,” Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton said. “It goes well beyond what is needed to keep international student numbers down to manageable levels. It disregards both the interests of international students and the autonomy of higher education providers.”

Professor Norton said the proposals would produce a “much larger decline” than the enrolment caps suggested. International students would not enrol in courses that did not match their career plans, while universities risking suspension of their course registrations would be “very conservative” in offering places.

Professor Ziguras said the proposals gave the minister a great deal of discretionary power. “It makes the planning of institutions and students much more susceptible to the whims of the individual who holds that position in the future.”



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