Labor And Liberals Wary Of Overseas Student Debate

Labor and Liberals wary of overseas student debate

By Guy Healy and Andrew Trounson
The Australian, August 6, 2010

Warnings from the international education sector on job losses are failing to gain political traction.

The sector is worried about the effects of immigration crackdowns and offshore competition. But both parties are wary of xenophobic anxieties in the electorate.

The crackdown is aimed at cutting migration rorts, largely in the private college industry, but the sector warns it will cause unnecessary damage to all markets.

Social researcher Hugh Mackay said yesterday that Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott seemed to be conspiring in their lack of leadership on international students and asylum-seekers, who had become 'symbols' for general anxiety.

'It is almost as if they have a truce,' he said. 'They aren't going to discuss any of these issues because they know each of these words is like a trigger word for anxiety, particularly with what's happening in our cities, and that is to do with infrastructure, over-crowding and crime.

'It is just that (these anxieties) are the things that are quite irrationally driving the prejudices about overseas students and asylum-seekers.'

That prejudice was highlighted in a survey in March in which almost half the 1378 respondents believed international students took university places off domestic students. In fact, it is largely the opposite, as universities are dependent on international fees to subsidise under-funded government places for domestic students.

Monash University demographer Bob Birrell said the belief that overseas students took university places from locals was widespread but untrue. But he said universities had tended not to push hard for more government-allocated domestic places in areas that have high international demand, like accounting, 'because it has been so much more lucrative to use scarce classroom and teaching resources in satisfying the overseas market'.

The Gillard government is pushing universities to expand domestic places by funding injections. From 2012, it will remove caps on allocations of government places. In anticipation, universities have expanded faster than expected. But higher education analyst Simon Marginson, of Melbourne University, warned that significant growth in domestic students would also need growth in international students.