How bad is the international student English language problem?

The English language abilities of international students keep coming up as an issue. Despite reassurances from the regulator and universities, there is little publicly-available evidence to support a conclusion that the language issues are too infrequent or not serious enough to be a major concern.

Although we should always be careful with statistics on self-assessed abilities, they can provide a rough guide. If someone says that they do not speak English very well chances are that they will struggle in an English-speaking university.

One source of data on self-assessed English is the 2016 Census. The Census does not directly identify people on student visas, but I have used a number of filters – enrolled full-time in university, non-citizen, and arrived in Australia 2014-2016 – to identify likely international students. I also removed people who are monolingual English speakers. It’s likely that the data still includes some visitors to Australia and domestic students, such as those on humanitarian visas, but it should be dominated by international students.

As the chart below shows, the vast majority of likely international students say that they speak English well or very well. However, 9 per cent say that they do not speak English well.

English language overall

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Migration has outpaced demand driven funding as a source of additional graduates

As the latest OECD Education at a Glance publication confirms, Australia is a high tertiary education attainment country. But large-scale migration makes it hard to interpret Australian figures – what is the result of policies aimed at educating Australian citizens, and what is due to our commercial international education industry and skills-based migration program?

Although demand driven funding increased the annual number of people completing bachelor degrees, on my calculations using the ABS Education and Work survey additional citizen graduates of Australian universities account for slightly less than half of the increase in graduate numbers since 2013 — 406,000 additional Australian or New Zealand citizen graduates of Australian universities and 421,000 extra graduates who hold degrees from overseas universities or are non-citizen holders of Australian university degrees.

20-64 overseas and domestics

The chart below attempts to break the numbers down a bit further, although the categories are not straightforward.

Education and Work separately identifies people on a student visa, which it puts at 142,000 in 2018 (80 per cent with overseas degrees). I have deducted these from the other non-citizen categories. As postgraduate international enrolments have been growing more quickly than undergraduate in recent times, I expect this category to grow in future years. types of overseas grad

In Education and Work, the ABS continues its irritating standard practice of not identifying permanent residents, who are entitled to a Commonwealth supported place and to remain indefinitely in Australia. There were 36,000 domestic students with PR in 2017. This means the ‘non-citizen with an Australian degree’ category is a mix of them (after they graduate) and former international students on temporary or permanent visas. With increasing numbers of completing international students getting 485 visas, I expect that this will be a growing category.

What I find most interesting in this data is the very large number of people with overseas degrees – more than a million in total. About 45 per cent have have taken out citizenship. Most of them would be the product of Australia’s skilled migration program, although there were also 58,000 New Zealand citizens, who can come to Australia without going through the usual visa system, with an overseas degree.

On right-hand side of the second chart I have a column ‘migrant citizen with an Australian degree’, representing just over 700,000 people, that in the first chart appears in the ‘domestic’ time series. Most of them, I think, would have been domestic students (just under half arrived in 1996 or earlier), but some largish proportion would have been people who arrived as international students and subsequently became citizens.

In 2018, 68 per cent of degree holders in Australia were Australian or New Zealand citizens with degrees from Australian universities. But because we cannot identify the former international students in this group, it is quite likely that more than a third of all degree holders in Australia acquired their qualification with no assistance from Australian higher education policy.

 

International students should be able to make political donations

Late last year, the federal government introduced a bill to prohibit foreign political donors. It would have strangled charity and NGO political activity with red tape. After a strong backlash, earlier this month the government introduced a revised bill, with a substantially reduced, although still significant, level of donor-checking bureaucracy. Labor is backing the bill.

While the government’s amendments reduce the burdens on NGOs, they are more draconian for foreign donors. In the bill’s original version, all donations below $250 were deemed allowable. In the current version, foreign donors are completely banned from donating for Commonwealth electoral expenditure. This includes donations to political parties and to NGOs when their political advocacy might influence voting in a federal election.

While NGOs won’t need any anti-foreigner measures on donations below $100, a foreign donor could, in theory, be fined up $42,000 for making such a donation. NGOs would not be legally obliged to warn small donors of these potential consequences.Read More »

Should international students lose political rights?

One of the biggest changes to Australia migration this century, and through it to Australian society, has been the rise of long-term residents without the rights created by permanent residence or citizenship.

International students make up a large proportion of these restricted-rights residents, with more than half a million in Australia this year. While most international students go home after finishing their studies or convert to permanent residence, some stay on successive temporary visas for ten or more years. Other large categories of restricted-rights residents include New Zealanders and people on temporary work visas.

The total number of residents with limited rights varies depending on which visa categories are counted, but more than 1.8 million people are in this category.

As well as having no or limited access to social security benefits, often insecure tenure in Australia, and no right to vote in elections, restricted-rights residents are caught up in recent moves against ‘foreign’ political donors.

In Victoria, the current campaign finance bill links the right to make a political donation to eligibility under Commonwealth social security legislation, adding to the disadvantages that legislation already creates. (There is a loophole, as entities with an ABN can donate, and you don’t need to be a permanent resident or citizen to get an ABN. So ‘foreigners’ can donate via their business interests but not otherwise.)

With a very low donations caps in the Victoria bill – only $4000 over the four year electoral cycle to a political party – nobody could have much influence via donations.  Even if ‘foreigners’ are a bad influence the problem would be already solved another way.

The Victorian legislation’s one redeeming feature is that it only applies in a limited context.  It covers donations for political expenditure with the dominant purpose of attempting to influence votes in Victorian elections. So other donations to political parties, and donations to third parties campaigning on issues rather than directly advocating a vote, would not be covered.

In practical terms, that means that international students could donate to campaigns on state issues that are important to them, such as crime and public transport concessions.

By contrast, the federal bill that would ban ‘foreign’ donations of $250 or more covers a very wide range of political activity. It covers any public expression of views on a political party or candidate, and any public expression of views on an issue that is, or could be, an election issue. As it is hard to know what could be an election issue, a cautious approach would read this as covering any potential political issue.Read More »