Shutting migration's back door TIM COLEBATCH

The Age

Tuesday February 9, 2010

Tim Colebatch. Tim Colebatch is economics editor.

A Howard-era initiative that sought to encourage highly skilled migrants needed to be reined in. THERE is nothing inevitable about Australia having a population of 36 million in 2050. Whether it does or not is almost entirely a matter of immigration policy. With no net immigration, and fertility rates more or less where they've been for the past 35 years, the Bureau of Statistics estimates that our population in 2050 would be roughly the same as now. Immigration determines our future size.There's a broad consensus among Australians in support of immigration, which is why our 22 million people include almost 6 million born overseas. An Anglo/Celtic society has become a melting pot where people from everywhere can make their home and add their flavour to our culture.But immigration policy requires tough choices, and constant policing. The bureau's statistics imply that net immigration into Australia last year swelled the population by 303,630 €” that's Geelong and Ballarat combined. If we had no immigration controls, that would be well over a million, maybe many millions.John Howard's Pacific Solution to deter refugees was controversial, but the words with which he justified it €” "We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come" €” express the fundamental reality of immigration policy. Many people would come here if they had the chance. It is for us to decide whom we accept.That is why the changes to the skilled worker scheme announced by Immigration Minister Chris Evans on Sunday are so important. More by accident than design, changes by the Howard government had opened up back doors by which, in effect, people could migrate to Australia by enrolling for a vocational training course, then getting a job and staying here.The growth of foreign students in lower-level courses has been staggering. Monash University demographers Bob Birrell and Bronwen Perry record that between 2004 and 2008, foreign student commencements in vocational education and training (VET) courses jumped from 32,056 to 105,752. The number studying English-language (ELICOS) courses doubled from 45,359 to 99,367.This growth came mostly from India and Nepal. Between 2004 and 2008, the number of Indian students commencing VET courses shot up from 1005 to 32,771, while those in ELICOS jumped from 897 to 14,508.Mostly, the rise was in four areas: cooking, hairdressing, hospitality and hospitality management. In a study last year in Monash's demographic quarterly, People and Place, Birrell and Perry record that in the same four years, foreign student commencements in these courses shot up from 4752 to 40,525. Indian student numbers rose from 409 to 18,269, and Nepalis from 22 to 4018.Why? It wasn't as if acquiring a basic Australian qualification allows cooks or hairdressers to earn far more money in India or Nepal. Rather, migration agents found that the system allowed these courses to be a back door to gaining Australian residency.In the past, foreign students who had completed their courses were required to leave Australia, then apply to migrate here if they chose. But in 2001, immigration minister Phillip Ruddock introduced what seemed a smart idea. We wanted skilled migrants. Why not allow students who had already spent years here to stay on if they could get a job on graduation? It made sense. But then, like many sensible ideas, it got so stretched by interest groups that it became something else. By 2004, it extended to 106 occupations said to be in demand, including hairdressers, cooks and other low-skilled trades. Completing a VET course could lead to a temporary skilled-worker visa, and then to permanent residency."The evidence implies that the majority of VET students have invested in their training in the expectation that a permanent residence visa would be obtained," Birrell and Perry concluded. "The purpose of the investment in Australian education is to obtain access to the Australian labour market."That is the back door Senator Evans has closed. His reforms are complex, and include transitional arrangements which mean that the old rules will still apply to virtually all students already here. The new rules are meant to stop others from following them.The key changes are that:–The list of 106 occupations in demand has been scrapped, to be replaced by a new skilled occupation list that, Evans says, "will focus on high-value professions and trades".–The points test that determines if aspiring migrants are accepted will be revised to give more weight to high-value skills and overseas qualifications.–The minister will be able to limit visa numbers for specific occupations.–State governments will draw up their own lists of priority skills, with suitable applicants given priority in processingBirrell believes this tackles the problems he raised. "It's an important change", he said. "It will restore some integrity to the immigration system. The transition arrangements are extremely generous, but over the long term, this will be a strong system."Importantly, there will be no change to student visas. What changes is the access that obtaining a low-level VET qualification provides to the Australian labour market, and to Australian residency.It should reduce foreign student numbers, unless new loopholes are found. But for perspective, between 2007 and 2009, the number of foreign students here soared from 248,500 to 386,528, and most of that growth was at the lower end. Our TAFEs and colleges will have to find ways to attract foreign students by what they offer in education, not in immigration.Closing the immigration back door is one half of the reform we need to create a high-skilled, full-employment society. The other is to ensure that young Australians get the training to fill the skilled jobs of the future. That is still work in progress.

© 2010 The Age

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