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International students impaled on (illusory) population spike

International students are not fuelling immigration as much as first thought. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

If you’re in politics, population matters. Rival studies on what constitutes a sustainable Australian population project wildly different statistics. But behind the figures are real people whose lives are affected. Some of the most vulnerable victims are international students.

The chatter about sustainable population has got louder as the government considers its strategy after receiving advice on the subject from three advisory groups, who recently closed the time for public comment.

Figures from Australian Bureau of Statistics published this week suggest that population growth is slipping back towards where it was in 2006.

No surprise, really, as the 2008 population spike that scared the horses last year was really no such thing. And those hyping it should have known better.

The outcry about a supposed “40 million population in forty years” created enough hysteria to bring about a reactive government freeze the entry of foreign students.

Tens of thousands of students were thrown into a no-man’s limbo land of thwarted expectations and wasted money.

In researching a working paper late last year, I stumbled across a bizarre situation.

The ABS stats indeed showed this spiking in student numbers, and a shift in population growth paths as a consequence. My colleagues and I discovered that the changes were the result of an administrative re-jigging by the ABS of the definition of a migrant.

Until 2006, a migrant was someone who stayed in Australia twelve months or more. This was the evidence base for determining the longer-term population projections using Net Overseas Migration figures (NOM).

However the ABS decided to re-adjust the parameters to reflect international usage, which allowed for temporary departures within fourteen months.

Thus the new definition became people resident for twelve out of sixteen months. It captured hundreds of thousands of international students who returned home each year during the long vacation, and then came back for the start of classes.

But it didn’t yet reflect the tens of thousands who were in the later stages of their courses, and would soon leave permanently after graduation.

When you have the best part of 300,000 international students suddenly “captured”, you get the mother of all population spikes.

When Treasury does its population projections from this base without interrogating the base figures, the growth curve arches up into the sky.

My ASSA paper was concerned with delineating what contribution social science research could make to understanding the impact and experience of international students in Australia.

We discovered that much of the policy was not based on good research.

The population panic was a clear case of populist-driven ignorance enhanced by bureaucratic silos and non-communication.

The contribution of economic, demographic, sociological, psychological, educational, cultural anthropological and political science research could make an enormous difference. Not just in the quality of the public and policy debate, but also to the outcomes both for Australia and the international students.

Instead we saw a series of disconnected government decisions. Some were properly based on concerns to do with exploitation and corruption in the international education industry. But because of poor quality and misinterpreted data they had immediate and in some cases devastating consequences.

International students fit uncomfortably into Australia’s human rights regime, especially since the Government’s rejection of a human rights act in 2009.

They are more than visitors but less than citizens. They have no rights of residence only of sojourn. And their rights as citizens of their own countries do not have much purchase in Australia.

Despite their generally fairly low levels of income they do in fact pay taxes to local, state and federal government. Yet they have no access to taxation-supported services.

Despite often living in Australia for a number for years, they have no access to the vote, not even for local government.

They pay GST on everything they buy, thus bolstering state revenues. But in many states they have no access to student travel support or public housing.

When they work, they pay federal income tax, but they can’t access any of the federal subsidies available to local students.

They have to carry all their medical costs, and are required to have paid up front for health insurance for the whole period of their planned stay.

When the Government responded to the evidence of corruption in some areas of the international education industry identified in the Baird Report in 2009/10, it effectively closed down a whole realm of opportunities associated with the vocational education sector, especially for poorer students from northern India and Pakistan.

At the same time it failed to quell unfortunately well-founded fears of racism and other areas of discrimination and exploitation. These fears were amplified by the resounding publicity in the Indian media about deaths, bashings and other forms of hostility experienced by Indian students.

It took Australian state authorities some time to come to grips with the underlying issues of safety, security and educational access. Many of these relate to the rights still denied to students, and their increased vulnerability.

There is something slightly ironic in former Senator Chris Evans’ position. He drove down demand for international education places when he was Immigration Minister. Now, as Tertiary Education Minister, he leads delegations of desperate university vice chancellors as they trudge through Asia in search of students.

The interventions of the government that were driven by “population sustainability” have been demonstrated to have been based on invalid conclusions based on poorly interpreted data.

The denial of racism that so exacerbated Indian suspicion of Australian authorities has now also been modified.

In February the new Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, announced a national anti-racism partnership campaign. He also re-established a full-time Racial Discrimination Commissioner charged with leading the national strategy.

University researchers and administrators are currently working with the international education industry, the Australian Research Council and the L H Martin Institute to define a research agenda that can deliver high quality, useful and relevant research on international student issues for all levels of government and the wider community.

The Strategy on International Students launched by COAG in November 2010 falls far short of what has been widely identified by researchers as the full range of necessary interventions.

But there are now signs that the knowledge about the issues affecting international students, and their needs, may increasingly permeate policy and administrative practice.

Given that we have seen what happens when government acts without an evidence base, I would hope that things can only now improve for all parties.

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