International student trends and what comes next

I had hoped the exploitation uncovered by the ABC and Fairfax at 7/11 would have changed the big picture coverage about international students. My hope was misplaced.

This week the Department of Immigration and Border Protection released the June 2015 statistics for international students. There were a couple of very interesting trends, mainly:

  • Growth in the total number of student visa applications continues to grow. In June 2015, there were about 374,000 international students in Australia which is +10% on the June 2014 figure. On these trends, 2016 will see the largest number of international students in Australia ever, besting the spike of 2008-09.
  • Growth in post-study work student visas is way below expectation. The Gillard government created two standardised post-study work pathways yet something is amiss as they are not proving very popular. Either more people are choosing to leave Australia or more students than ever are getting permanent visas immediately after graduating. Whatever the case, this is a space to watch as universities pushed really hard for the introduction of post-study work visas as a competitive edge over other countries.
  • People who used to hold student visas are moving onto other substantive visas in increasing numbers. The next visa for former international students included:
    • Working Holiday makers: 2,899 (+5.7%)
    • 457 visas: 14,707 (-7.2%)
    • Post-study work visas: 21,259 (+3.7%)
    • Student visas: 28,577 (+7.3%)
    • Permanent points-test visas: 5,328 (+19.4%)

Australia opening up our higher education system has been one of the most productive domestic economic policy shifts over the past two decades. I also believe it is largely beneficial for the students themselves.

Yet despite the outrage generated by the 7/11 story (of which nearly every single worker would’ve been an international student), I saw very little reporting or thinking in light of these trends for the big picture of international student migration. I think it is fair to conclude more exploitation occurs than previously and with the visa application trend increasing, something more substantial is required to address underlying issues.

Instead of shouting, thinking would be promoted. Put yourself in the shoes of a 19 year old kid from East Asia (China, India, Vietnam, South Korea and Nepal make up the top 5 countries of origin). Better yet, imagine 10 kids.

Survey data says five of these students don’t want to work. At least one works in their field of study. Of the remaining four, two or three are likely working with conditions very similar to anyone else. Yet one poor bastard has applied for 10 jobs and can’t get anything.

Instead of persevering in what she now deems as an inherently racist labour market, she takes an easier option but one she is willing to accept. $10-11 per hour with 10-12 hour shifts as the norm. She needs the money. This market wage is greater than the equivalent back home. The jobs are plentiful as they are hidden from the mainstream.

Creating a policy response to this labour environment is extremely difficult. There is no special lever the government can pull. There is very little incentive to report exploitation given this will, a) leave the person without a job, and b) risk the wrath of the community students are likely deeply embedded in. Past evidence tells us intra-ethnic employer-employee relationships are amongst the most risky in the labour market for exploitative practices to thrive. But doing something about this is much harder than simply making noise.

There are decent questions worth asking. Should students be limited to 40 hours per fortnight? How would whistle-blower provisions operate in this environment? Where are possible points of contact outside of formal immigration authorities? But I don’t see much evidence of engaged debate even in the face of recent, massive revelations about widespread exploitation. Working out why students come to Australia and what they want for their future is would be a good place to start. And most importantly, this stuff cannot simply be left to backroom Senate committees. Higher education providers, the media and the business community have a much larger role to play than what we currently see.

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