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.

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