Australia’s tertiary institutions, reliant on tuition paid by overseas students, and the Federal government need to understand why these students choose this country if Australia is to remain a competitive international destination post-COVID-19.
With courses now being delivered online, not only by Australian universities but by competing universities in other countries, especially the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, there could be a significant drop in the number of international students coming to Australia for their education.
We need to understand what it is that attracts overseas students to choose Australia over other destinations. We may like to think that it is the high quality of our universities and the global recognition of their qualifications. However, that would be wishful thinking. The competing countries, especially the USA and UK, remain the destination of choice, especially in China and India, which provide the bulk of our international students. The primary attraction of Australia is that gaining a degree here could be a pathway towards permanent residence and citizenship.
In the heightened global competitive environment that will follow the COVID-19 crisis, we need to reconsider the significant challenges that our current immigration processes pose to international students to obtain permanent residence. Given that we are still likely to continue with a significant migration program, international students should be high on our target list of potential migrants.
After all, they have Australian qualifications, making them eligible to fill skilled jobs in this country. Moreover, having spent 3 or more years in Australia, they know us and we know them. They are, therefore, already making a well-considered decision to live here and are highly likely to be very productive and successful new citizens.
Unfortunately, the current pathway is cumbersome, uncertain and expensive and long drawn out. It is as if we don’t want them to stay here, treating them more like unwanted asylum seekers than highly valuable prospective migrants. The rationale for this is very difficult to understand.
We seem to place as many obstacles in their path as possible, including requiring them to once again prove their English language skills by resitting the IELTS tests, surely a redundant and absurd requirement, given that they have actually completed tertiary studies in English at a recognised Australian higher education institution and even paid for the privilege! Many of them actually find the process so difficult that they give up and return home, looking for migration opportunities in other countries.
One can only hope that, in the ultra-competitive world that will follow the COVID-19 crisis, the Australian Government will reconsider the current difficulties we put in the path of overseas students who want to stay here permanently. We should recognise that the prospect of permanent residence is the most significant competitive advantage we have relative to all other competing countries.
Let’s make it clear to them that, once they have completed their studies and obtained Australian qualifications that would make them eligible for permanent residence, they are welcome to apply and offer them as much assistance as we can to help them in the process.
Surely, this would be a positive a win-win outcome all round!
Neville J Roach AO Former Chairman of Australian Government’s Business (Migration) Advisory Panel