PM under fire as migrants plug skills gap

April 15, 2005

Australia is failing to meet demand for local graduate professionals because it relies too heavily on skilled migrants and fee-paying foreign students, a study has found.

Monash University researchers note that instead of increasing the number of Australian graduates after it took office in 1996, the Conservative Government of John Howard boosted migrant intake and encouraged foreign students to become permanent residents.

The team from Monash's Centre for Population and Urban Research found that government policy has restricted Australians' access to university and has contributed to a serious shortages of professionals. It says the Government's response has been to boost immigration.

In a report published this week in the Monash journal People and Place , the researchers say that virtually all of the growth that has occurred in undergraduate numbers has been among full fee-paying overseas students.

Between 1996-2003, overseas student enrolments rose 125 per cent, whereas Australian numbers barely changed overall and fell sharply between 2001 and 2003.

The eight years to 2003 saw a steady rise in professional employment across all major fields - well above growth in domestic undergraduate enrolments.

But while the economic boom reached a peak in 2004, with an inevitable demand for more professionals, undergraduate enrolments fell in the key occupational disciplines. This resulted in pressure to increase skilled migration so much that last year, migrant numbers reached a 15-year high.

Professionals dominated the migrant intake, with almost 26,000 entering the country, while some 11,000 permanent residency visas were issued to foreign students who completed their courses in Australia.

The research shows that overseas computing professionals exceeded the number of Australians graduating in that field. In accounting, the migrant component was more than half the local graduate numbers.

Now, with growing concern among business and industry leaders about the shortage of professionals, the Government is considering boosting skilled migrant numbers by a further 20,000 next year. "Should this proposal be approved, it will weight the source of new professionals even further away from domestic aspirants," the Monash team states. "Immigration may be a short-term stop-gap but it is at the expense of opportunity for many Australians to improve their economic situation through a university degree."

The report says that government enrolment decisions, associated with the reforms introduced by Education Minister Brendan Nelson, will not improve the situation.

Despite government claims that it will increase federally funded student places by 34,000 between 2004-08, the researchers say universities will be forced to cut back on enrolments because they have previously exceeded the limit imposed by the Government.

The report says the number of government-subsidised places should be rising in line with demand and professional employment patterns. It says this is sensible both for employers and for increasing opportunities for Australia's young people.

Details: www.arts.monash.edu.au/sociology/cpur/publications

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