Friday, November 12, 2010

The Disappearing Dodgy College

Ever since student safety issues took centre stage following Indian student bashings in Melbourne in 2009, a new noun-phrase has entered the lexicon: The Dodgy College. A supposed contributor to the student safety problem: the idea that there were, (and perhaps still are), significant numbers of low quality international education providers quickly took hold in the public mind. All corners of the industry; institutions, peak bodies and Government agencies have bemoaned the existence of these rogue elements. Minister Evans recently said:"As happens in any boom—less reputable providers entered the market, causing concerns about quality, and leading to the very public failure of badly-run institutions."

The Dodgy College has/had the following basic characteristics:
  • Its student body contained only one or two nationalities of students.
  • It over enrolled students for its facilities and above its official CRICOS capacity.
  • It offered Hospitality or Hairdressing (VET courses on Migration Occupation in Demand List).
  • It promoted a permanent residency pathway as a key outcome.
These weren't characteristics that were confined to private institutions, but when the flow of students was lessened, some smaller providers' business model collapsed. The TAFEs and Universities who followed the same business model, could hide their losses in a larger revenue stream. It's important to recognise that a number of failures of private education providers have not been due to the low-quality of their programs or services, or being badly run; or being an unattractive option for students. Rather, the sudden difficulties in obtaining student visas, and the large increase in funds needed to be demonstrated by prospective students to cover living costs has made some "good" operators unable to maintain enough student enrolments to survive, regardless of whether they offer cooking or hairdressing.

Evans also said "over the last decade or so our international education sector galloped ahead far faster than its strategic thinking. " and I think he's referring to the link between gaining these particular VET qualifications and gaining permanent residency in Australia. The "strategic thinking" was done by the Australian Government itself by putting this policy in place and actively promoting it. For a number of years as the numbers of students coming grew (in both public and private institutions), some rumblings of concern did come from the industry, but seemingly not much from State or Federal Governments who were happy to promote the continued expansion of the VET to residency pathway. Yet seemingly, only the private VET providers offering such courses and outcomes have been demonised as the reason why "Brand Australia" has lost its shine. They were only doing the Governments bidding and to much acclaim.

Now, the Government has beefed up it's regulatory activities, and severed the link between migration and these two VET level courses. Any Dodgy College that continues in the same modus operandi as before has no future. Which, begs the question, are there any left or have they all been weeded out?

It's not easy to identify a Dodgy College by a statistic but the over-enrolment of students provides a real window into improvements being made. Collin Waters of AEI provided some very revealing statistics to the ACPET Conference in August:
  • in 2008, there were 52 institutions who had over enrolled students in Victoria, 44 in NSW and 18 in Qld
  • in 2010: only 5 in Victoria, 5 in NSW and none in Qld at all.
When you consider that there are more than 1,000 private providers registered on CRICOS, the number of Dodgy Colleges by this measure is very small, and certainly no reason to further tighten the noose on the overseas student visa process.

Now this business model has been dismantled, its time for the Government to actively stimulate the recruitment of international students into Australia via easing the conditions around the student visa process, to help counter the negative messages and reputation loss both public and private institutions have weathered recently. It's time to stop focussing attention on an issue that has been largely solved and start working toward a more pressing need to solve the downturn in student enrolments, otherwise there will be more College closures and they won't be "Dodgy Colleges".

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

International Students: Are they migrants?

Watching Graeme Hugo's excellent presentation at the Migration Institute of Australia's conference a couple of weeks back got me thinking - What happens when common words are put to differing usage? Associations that we have with particular words can influence political debate, and even drive policy - consider the word: "Migrant" What does this word mean to most people? Without looking at a dictionary, I'd suggest something like "a person who moves to live in another country on a long-term basis, potentially for the rest of their life"- this, or something similar might be a definition that the Australian public would agree with.

I don't think they would consider an international student, here for 4 years studying a bachelor degree, who then returns home, a migrant. If I go to live in London for a couple of years between school and University, and fully intend to come back for my studies to Australia, have I "migrated to the UK"? - it depends who you talk to...

Australian demographers, statisticians and many politicians use "migrant" in a different way to the rest of us it seems - a migrant is anyone who comes to live in Australia for more than one year - even if they are expected to leave after a particular date. Thus, any international students who study in Australia for more than a year are "migrants"(or young people on working holidays of a similar length for that matter). Students don't consider themselves as migrants until or if they get permanent residency, a job and settle here for good. But it's this counter-intuitive definition of "migrant" which has driven the public debate and unnecessarily frightened the population with visions of masses of new settlers, potentially placing stress on Australia's infrastructure, environment and way-of life.

There has not been an explosion in the number of permanent migrants to Australia, but there has been a large increase in international students. Nevertheless, IDP Australia estimate just 10-20% of students will ever settle in Australia, and the majority will go back home after their course of study as expected. The statistics show many more students arriving in the last 2-3 years than in previous years and not as many leaving (as the courses last 3-5 years). But they will leave when their time comes of course.

How this can play out in public is best illustrated by considering two related terms and two statistics for 2008/09 financial year (from DIAC):

Net Overseas Migration 313,414
Net Permanent Migration 143,601

Rather different statistics! Recent political conversations have used the net overseas migration figures to argue that we are heading towards an Australia of 35 million+ by 2050. Indeed, permanent migration rates of more than 300,000 per year would be a huge number for the country to absorb, but remember- half are expected to leave our shores in a few years, and in the meantime, far from being a burden, they are fully supporting their stay with their valuable overseas currency.

As international student enrolment numbers are now dropping, the Net Overseas Migration figure will plummet once the larger cohorts begins to go home at the end of their studies. No doubt, somebody will take political credit for this and link it to their policies on asylum seekers and other issues, but in fact it's just a function of turning off the international student pipeline - and in the process losing high value individuals who contribute so much to our economy.

I don't dispute that Net Overseas Migration is a worthwhile statistic (it gives a measure of the pressure exerted by overseas long-term visitors and migrants on infrastructure, for example) but as the indicator of the rate population growth in the public domain, it provides a distorted picture when international students are labelled migrants. As a stand alone figure, permanent migration figures give a more realistic view.

Fred Hilmer, VC of UNSW has also identified this issue and says " don't count these students as immigrants, they're not entitled to be immigrants... "

Helpfully, Hon. Chris Evans in his first address as Education Minister said "Student visas are temporary visas. They are not included in the nation’s permanent migration program numbers, and we remain committed to maintaining our international student program as an
uncapped program."

So, make sure when migrant numbers are quoted, you understand which measure they are using.