Australia’s Education Industry – Competing Priorities

Australia’s migration program and its international education industry are both vitally important to Australia, writes immigration lawyer Maria Jockel.

With an ageing population, zero population growth and declining workforce participation, the Australian Migration Program focuses on skilled migration as part of nation building.

The Australian international education industry is the Commonwealth’s third largest export earner and the State of Victoria’s largest export earner.

To put it in perspective, Australia’s education industry was worth A$18.6 billion in 2009.

As at September 2010, there were 576,906 enrolments by full-fee international students in Australia – 156,193 of them from China, the largest source country, followed by India (93,386)₁.

The recent university delegation to China, led by Senator Evans, Minister of Tertiary Education, illustrates the Government’s recognition of the importance of a strong international education sector to Australia’s future. Half of all Chinese students in Australia are enrolled in the higher education sector and a further 20 percent are enrolled in vocational education and training courses.

Yet recent events have put both the migration program and Australia’s international education sector under threat. The number of overseas students studying in Australia with the aim of becoming eligible for permanent residency is unsustainable. In response to concerns about fraud and migration rorts, the Government earlier this year, implemented tighter student visa rules. It has also reviewed the General Skilled Migration (GSM) Program and introduced a new Skilled Occupations List (SOL) and State Migration Plans (SMPs) with the intent of better meeting Australia’s skill needs.

However, these changes, together with the soaring Australian dollar and concerns about student safety and such like, have resulted in many complaining that the crackdown has been too heavy- handed and will undermine the growth of international education in Australia. Some have argued it will not meet the challenge of tackling skill shortages, particularly for the resources sectors where projects in Queensland and Western Australia make unprecedented demands on labour supply.

Official data released by the Government highlights skill shortages, a growth in private sector wages and a fall in skilled vacancies with the jobless rate at 5.4 percent in October 2010.

The announcement of a New Points Test for GSM, which is to come into effect on July 1, 2011, in unison with the SOL and the SMPs, aims to select migrants in occupations in line with Australia’s skill needs.

The New Points Test features:

The points for occupation have been removed (previously, you could get between 40/50/60 points depending on the occupation).

Points can be up to the age of 50 (to reflect productive working years rather than youth).

More strident English language threshold (an additional 10 point differential introduced for “Superior English” language ability (IELTS 8)).

Additional points for extended periods of employment in Australia.

Additional points for longer periods of professional experience generally.

Considerable additional points for university graduates, particularly for applicants with PhDs.

Relative advantages of trade and degree qualified occupations have been reversed.

Regional nomination and family sponsorship points reduced.

No indication of difference between independent and sponsored visa applicants’ pass marks (at this stage).

A new pass mark of 65 points.

A recent report of Skills Australia noted that there is very little difference between the projected demand levels in Australia to 2025 between trade levels and university qualifications.

Currently, the focus of the Skilled Migration Program accords priority processing to applicants who are:

Employer-sponsored applicants under the Employer Nomination Scheme (ENS) and the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS).

State/Territory sponsored applicants.

GSM applicants under the new SOL.

Others will have the least priority and therefore will have a long wait for their visas to be processed.

The question is: Will the New Points Test meet Australia’s labour force needs and, further, how will it impact on Australia’s international education industry?

Also in question is whether the Study/Migration Pathway continues to make Australia competitive in the international education market.

Australia faces competition from the US, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand. Each of these countries has their own rules as to the post-study options that former international students may have to secure residency in that country. Only time will tell how the Australian changes to the rules in regard to the study/migration pathway may ultimately affect Australia’s international education industry.

The international education sector has been subject to considerable government attention. The current regulatory and policy changes mean that particularly private vocational education providers are subject to a much tighter regulatory framework. The aim is to maintain quality educational outcomes and Australia’s reputation as a premier education destination.

The tightening of the student visa requirements has seen a dramatic drop in the number of international students, particularly from India and China.

The New Points Test is expected to again have a profound impact on Australia’s international education industry as many providers grapple with the New Points Test, the SOL and the SMPs to see how these may impact on permanent residency outcomes.

Whilst the Government has sought to create a “disconnect” between educational outcomes and permanent residency, it is yet to be seen if Australia has got the balance right. 

*Maria Jockel is an Accredited Immigration Law Specialist and Principal of Russell Kennedy’s Immigration Law Team in Melbourne. She has been practicing in the field for more than 30 years.

To contact the author: T: 61 3 8602 7213 E:


Article: “Monthly Summary of International Student Enrolment Data – Australia – YTD September 2010”, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

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