THOUSANDS of foreign students are using their visas as an illegal means of entering Australia.
The immigration department has tracked down more than 10,000 who have overstayed their visas in the past year. One in five admitted they were working and had no intention of going home.
Many pay Aus$250 for a five-year visa claiming they intend to enrol in universities or technical colleges. But they either do not turn up or downgrade their course to the bare minimum and work.
Immigration minister Philip Ruddock said serious abuse of student visas was occurring and colleges may be ordered to improve their surveillance and report irregularities. While the 150,000 overseas students last year contributed Aus$3.3 billion to the economy, the system was also being used to "jump the immigration queue".
Students are issued with visas by Australian immigration officers in their own countries. This is on condition that they pay full tuition fees and agree to leave after their course is completed.
The students can obtain paid work for up to 20 hours a week in term time and full-time in vacations. But some students were trying to squeeze in more hours.
"It is extremely difficult to prove that a student is meeting the requirements," he said. "Overstayers are unlawfully in Australia, have no work rights and those who are working are taking jobs away from unemployed Australians."
The government is under pressure from universities and private colleges to relax restrictions on admitting students from China. The collapse of local currencies in Malaysia, Indonesia and Korea has led to a disastrous decline in applications and institutions want to make this up.
Mr Ruddock may have released details of the illegal immigration to counter the calls for more Chinese students. After the Tiannanmen Square massacre in Beijing in 1989 Australia admitted thousands of Chinese and many later disappeared into the China towns of the capital cities.
The Australian Council for Private Education and Training, which represents more than 300 colleges, agreed there was abuse. President Clive Graham said some colleges enrolled foreign students, accepted their money, but provided no courses and allowed them to disappear. In the past eight years no college had been deregistered.
A senior immigration official said he knew of colleges that did not have desks, blackboards or facilities - just empty rooms. One had 300 students supposedly enrolled but only six desks.