AUSTRALIA is losing tens of millions of dollars each year because of federal government limits on study visas for students from mainland China.
Although the government estimates that foreign fee-paying students will contribute more than Aus$2.5 billion (Pounds 1.25 billion) to the Australian economy in 1997, critics in the universities say this sum would be half as much again if more students from China were allowed into the country.
Last year, the Australian embassy in Beijing issued only 1,500 visas to Chinese students wanting to enrol in Australian universities, technical colleges and schools. This was an increase of almost 50 per cent on the previous year's figures, and brought the total number of mainland Chinese students in Australia to about 2,000. But it was also in sharp contrast with the 40,000 Chinese studying in America.
Moreover, Australian universities last year enrolled 7,500 students from Hong Kong (where a different set of visa requirements apply from those on the mainland) and almost 11,000, mostly Chinese, from Malaysia. The fees from these two group alone were expected to add at least Aus$150 million to university coffers.
Critics of the federal government's tight visa controls being applied in Beijing say Australia's multi-million dollar education export market is being stifled by government concerns that if more students from the People's Republic were given visas they would use them as a backdoor means of illegal immigration.
Such immigration happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s and forced Australia's Labor government to reduce the issuing of visas, causing the collapse of more than a dozen private English-language colleges. The new conservative government has retained the strict visa requirements, presumably for the reasons Labor imposed them in the first place.
"It is immigration controls that are limiting the number of students, rather than the demand from the Chinese or the willingness of Australian institutions to supply services," said Dorothy Davis, a senior official with IDP Education Australia, a company set up by the Australian vice chancellors' committee to market education offshore. Ms Davis said the IDP estimated that 300,000 students from China would be studying abroad within 10 years, but that Australia would be left behind unless more students were allowed to study in the country.
Several Australian universities, such as the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, have res-ponded to the restrictions by establishing formal links with Chinese institutions and by setting up programmes in China to teach English to potential students. Australia's Immigration Department has relaxed the rules so that students who undertake such courses and are then offered a place in Australia can get visas without having to sit the tough compulsory English language test.
But Laurie Fisher, an education counsellor with the Australian embassy in Beijing, says that there are still serious concerns about the number of Chinese students who remain in Australia after their visas have expired.
"The facts of life are that the record of Chinese students overstaying their visas means Australia would compromise its immigration policy if it relaxed present controls," Mr Fisher said "We copped 40,000 students in the late 1980s - after the Tiananmen Square massacre - and did not make anything out of it except severe and ongoing immigration problems."