A federal government decision last week to further tighten the eligibility requirements for foreigners seeking permanent residency seems certain to have a serious impact on the already faltering recruitment of overseas students, especially those from China and India. These are the two largest source countries of students for Australia’s universities but they are also from where most applications come for permanent residency.

Students from China, the most numerous nationality on the nation’s campuses, who hope to become permanent residents will find it far more difficult to reach the higher English standard required when the rules come into force next July. But all those applying to remain in Australia face a far stricter test under the changes announced last week by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

Vice-chancellors have been vociferous in their calls on the government to act to protect what they claim is an A$18 billion a year export education bonanza following a catastrophic fall in student enrolments from the two main source countries. This followed government actions to tighten residency rules in February but the enrolment decline has been made worse subsequently by the rapidly rising value of the Australian dollar, increasing competition from other western countries, and the widely publicised violent attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney.

Surprisingly, given the vice-chancellors’’ concerns about the collapsing numbers of overseas students, they actually welcomed Bowen’s announcement. Their lobby group, Universities Australia, described the reforms as “sensible and constructive” which raises questions whether the full implications of the changes have yet sunk in.

The test applicants for permanent residency will have to pass emphasises the importance of English, work experience and high-level qualifications. Bowen said the test had been designed to ensure no one factor guaranteed migration.

“The current test puts an overseas student with a short term vocational qualification and one year’s work experience in Australia ahead of a Harvard educated environmental engineer with three years’ relevant work experience,” said Bowen. “The new test would ensure the best and brightest people were selected from a large pool of potential migrants.”

A key change in the new system is that foreign students will need to achieve level 6 on the English language test that all foreign students must take just to be even considered for permanent residency and they will then need to accumulate at least 65 points in total. Under existing rules, students with a score of 6 start off with 15 points out of a total of 120 required. From next July they must still achieve level 6 but will gain no points.

Students applying for residency score points for better English language skills, higher-level qualifications obtained in Australia (or overseas), skilled work experience, and if they are older than the typical Australian undergraduate. Would-be migrants aged 25-32 score 30 points while 18-24 year-olds earn 20 points.

The new test will also award points for study in Australia, enrolment in a regional university, community languages, partner skills and a “professional year”. Points will not be awarded on the basis of an applicant’s occupation, although he or she must still have an occupation on the new Skilled Occupation List.

Monash University demographer Dr Bob Birrell has been one of the strongest critics of government inaction in controlling the number of foreign students using study in Australia as a simple means of gaining permanent residency. Birrell described the latest changes, coupled with those announced in February, as “adding up to a revolution”.

“The changes are really quite significant and will make it much tougher for overseas students completing Australian courses to gain permanent residency,” he said. “The government has levelled the playing field in terms of accepting migrants who have undertaken study and gained work experience abroad which is not the case at present.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey