Despite the loss of up to 5,000 jobs in Australian universities over the past three years, overseas academics are still being hired to fill the few vacancies that occur.
Vice-chancellors are warning that more posts will have to be eliminated if the academic union continues its campaign for a 19 per cent pay rise, yet the latest figures reveal that since 1996, universities have directly sponsored almost 300 foreign academics from overseas plus an unknown number from within the country.
The sponsorship allows the foreigners to obtain permanent resident visas and take a job. As a result of the long-standing enthusiasm to hire staff from other countries, especially Britain and the United States, fewer than two out of three academics were born in Australia.
Yet universities here produce more than 4,000 graduates with PhDs each year.
Between 1991 and 1996, 2,400 foreigners making up 7.3 per cent of the academic workforce arrived in Australia. In the years up to 1990, more than 30 per cent of the total had come from abroad.
The proportion of foreign-born academics varies widely in different subjects. The highest proportion is in engineering, where 56 per cent of academic staff were born overseas. In computer science, just over half are foreign born while in medicine the figure is 43 per cent.
Monash University sociologist Bob Birrell said: "Foreign academics often use Australia as a stepping stone to jobs elsewhere. It's said that Australians can do the same but I don't think they can. We don't have the networks."
Universities enjoy an exemption, unique among Australian industries, from immigration requirements to test their staff vacancies in the domestic labour market. Under the government employment nomination system for skilled migrants, employers are able to sponsor selected foreigners for permanent resident visas on the basis of the skills relevant to a particular job.
But, except for universities, visas are issued only after the employer can prove that an appropriate resident worker is not available.
"The exemption applying to universities is anomalous given that it exists at a time when there is a massive oversupply of domestic applicants for scarce advertised positions," Dr Birrell said. He said the oversupply is a consequence of the rapid increase in PhD output from Australian universities.
While a case can be made for employing foreigners in the natural sciences, given the global nature of the field, that is not so for the arts.
"In the arts and social sciences, you could argue that academics who know nothing about the Australian scene have less claim on jobs here than those who do," Dr Birrell said.