It may be entirely coincidental that the latest private college in financial crisis, the Hales Institute, specialises in cooking and hairdressing training - the very courses the Federal Government removed from its priority list this month. But with Hales heading into receivership and another thousand students in limbo, the government needs to take care not to strangle our third largest export industry.
Hales’ $7 million debt did not accrue suddenly, but it and a number of other colleges have felt the brunt of a policy change that overnight meant 20,000 international students have completed vocational courses that no longer give them points towards permanent residency.
Colleges that have invested heavily in previously approved courses now face an uncertain future, as students dry up. And Hales will not be the last to face financial strife.
This is happening because the government is trying to solve one problem - a perception that people with the “wrong” skills (hairdressing, cooking) were being welcomed to Australia in place of the “right” people (rocket scientists, brain surgeons?). We don’t know who these “right” people are because the government hasn’t released its list of “approved” courses. In the meantime, along the way, it has caused another problem: destabilising a major industry.
Unlike Douglas Adams in his Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, Immigration Minister Chris Evans couldn’t simply blast the world’s surplus hairdressers, management consultants and “telephone sanitisers” into space as unwanted accessories. He did the next best thing, announcing a “general skills migration review” that relegated cookery, hairdressing and others off the demand list, in favour of professions weighted towards the tertiary sector.
This may be great domestic politics, and we welcome a sensible review of a system that allowed fly-by-nighters to spring up in the past decade to take advantage of immigration laws designed to fill the nation’s skill gaps, from hospitality to mining.
And there is no doubt that there are rotten apples in the barrel that need to be removed - like private colleges rorting the visa system and charging students fees up to $20,000 a year to do courses that cost Australian students only hundreds of dollars.
But the Minister’s sledgehammer has not just fallen on the vultures, it risks damaging long-established reputable colleges and the 212,000 students placed in jeopardy under the revamped system. The sector is in shock, and with no grace period for implementation the effect is being felt now.
Students who pay to study in Australia, and have a secondary aim to seek permanent residency after they finish their course are now left directionless.
If the government believes Australia requires fewer cooks and hairdressers the policy change makes sense, but if the intention is to fix the problems with international education, it is taking the wrong path and moving too quickly.
Has the government thoroughly examined the effects on the international education sector, the economy, local businesses and other sectors that have close links with education such as tourism?
Let’s have a look at this one by one.
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Wesa Chau is a speaker, thinker, advocate and consultant, with expertise in diversity, working cross-culturally, international students, young people and disability.