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Politics with Michelle Grattan: Andrew Norton on the Albanese government’s interventionist policy to cut foreign student numbers

Politics with Michelle Grattan: Andrew Norton on the Albanese government’s interventionist policy to cut foreign student numbers

Migration has become a major battleground between the government and opposition. While they have different policies, each side is targeting foreign students in their plans for cuts in the intake.

The government will apply caps, decided by the minister, on the numbers of foreign students for particular universities, with some concessions for those institutions investing in new student accommodation.

Andrew Norton, professor in the practice of higher education policy at the ANU, joined the podcast to dissect the policy.

He stresses how wide the minister’s prerogative under the policy will be:

The government has announced that it’s going to give the minister the power to set caps on the number of international students, and he can do this by education provider, by course, by location and any other matter he decides to choose to do. So very broad powers for the minister to decide essentially how big the industry will be in total and how big any provider can be.

The universities’ locations will be significant for their likely caps:

I think it will be tougher on some than others and the reason for that is […] the accommodation crisis in major cities, particularly Melbourne and Sydney.

What it means is there’ll be significant caps, probably within the metropolitan areas of Sydney and Melbourne, and possibly no caps at all in regional universities because they don’t have these same problems. But of course we know that only a relatively small number of international students want to study in the Australian regions.

The government is also continuing a push to combat “ghost colleges”, which have presented challenges to governments’ attempts to curb them:

A ghost college is essentially a college set up, possibly in collaboration with the migration agent. The students don’t want to study. They just want to work in Australia and so they have this semi-fake enrolment in a ghost college, which enables them to work full-time.

There are about 800 of these private vocational colleges that can take international students. I think most of them are honest, but there’s probably dozens that are not, and so the government is trying to crack down on these and basically get them out of the market.

They are masters at looking for loopholes and one of the things the government is doing now is basically stopping registration of them for a year or so, just to try and get a handle on the ones we’ve got now.

The fee structure of universities, which was changed under Scott Morrison to increase costs for the humanities, hasn’t been changed under Labor; Norton gives us a reason why:

It’s hard to do it in a budget-neutral way. I think that the coalition booby-trapped this policy. So they are charging about $16,000 a year to do an arts degree but only about $4,500 a year to do nursing or teaching, and so to make this budget neutral, they would need to increase fees for teaching and nursing, which is obviously not a good political idea when you’re trying to encourage people to go into those courses. And so that’s what I think they’ve been paralysed by.

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