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Reforms and elections in Australia turn higher education upside-down

From late August until mid-September, higher education institutions in Australia were caught on a dramatic roller coaster, first with an indecisive national election on 21 August, then an unfortunate muddling of national higher education oversight.  Moreover, a disconcerting undercurrent of this election and the rhetoric surrounding it was the specific threat to Australia’s image as an attractive destination for international students.  This is serious business in a country that depends on higher education export as its third-largest industry.

International students, who produce AUS 12.1 billion for the country’s economy, have been the target of attack, both figuratively and literally.  In the immigration policy realm, international students now have to demonstrate double the amount of financial support to be eligible for a visa, plus paths to ‘skilled labour’ migration have been cut from a tightening of the list of eligible professions.  On the educational side, the government has been cracking down on the proliferation of institutions that cater primarily to international students, which are mostly private vocational education and training (VET) colleges of questionable quality; already 15 such institutions have been shut down.  The most troublesome development, though, is the reputational damage to all Australian institutions because of highly negative media coverage in the main sending countries about the physical attacks on international students.  In the face of these developments, a new lobbying and advocacy group called Council of International Students Australia has been set up, however it seems the fall-out may have already begun—the Department of Immigration recently announced that new student visa applications have fallen by 12% in the last 12 months, and granted visas to Indian students have dropped by nearly 50%.

Higher education institutions may have cause for broader worry moving forward.  In the reshuffling of education responsibilities in the new government, oversight of undergraduate education is now included in the Ministry of Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations (“Tertiary Education” has since been added to the title).  University leaders throughout Australia have expressed concern that this reflects an over-characterisation of undergraduate education as existing solely for job preparation.  Also, in a cruel twist of fate for international students, this new minister, Chris Evans, is the former immigration minister.  On top of all of this, populist anti-immigration rhetoric (toward all immigrants, not just students) became one of the key issues in this campaign.  It now seems that the former government’s commitment to higher education support is in jeopardy, with international student mobility squarely in the bull’s-eye.

Universities Australia