LAURA JAYES: The government’s new migration strategy will have a major impact on the number of international students studying in Australia. Joining me live to discuss this is Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson. What’s your response to these changes now you’ve had a bit of time to digest them?
CATRIONA JACKSON: A 99-page document and we’ve read through the whole thing now, Laura. These are good changes. International students who are coming here for genuine reasons to study at our world-class universities have nothing to be concerned about. From all the discussions we’ve had with government, and from the document we now see before us, this is about getting to students who might not want to be a student – they’re actually after a job outcome instead. Also knocking off some of those shonky operators who are exploiting and taking advantage of students which is just not appropriate.
LAURA JAYES: What happens with the so-called shonky operators? Essentially, you can sign up for a degree, you can pay a lot more money for them, but you don’t really go to study and the course is not that onerous on your time, but therefore you can work as well. Is that usually how it happens?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I suppose what’s of concern here is students who sign up, say for a Bachelor of Science at the Australian National University, or they want to do architecture at the University of Melbourne, they come along and then they’re lured by someone to go off and do something quite different. A short course, fairly low value and a skill that Australia’s not really all that keen on. Kids come with one set of intent and then they shift to something else. There are loopholes that need to be closed. If somebody wants to come here to work, that’s absolutely fine, but they need to apply for the appropriate kind of visa. If you’re coming here for a world-class education, that’s absolutely terrific, you need to apply for a student visa. We just need to stop the loophole that means people can come here with a different intent entirely from being a genuine student.
LAURA JAYES: How widespread do you think that has been in the past – genuine students and others?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I think we’ve seen a little bit of an uptick in the recent past, but the important thing here is the government is taking it seriously. They’re looking at the whole migration system, the way all the visas work, just to make sure that it actually works properly and in the interest of the country. Get rid of this great class of people that are on temporary visa after temporary visa after temporary visa. That’s not good for the country. It’s not good for the students. What we can see from the education sector, from the university sector, is this is a set of changes that will simply make all the incentives, all the messages we’re sending through the visa system clearer and make the journey for students better. The changes to English language testing and the changes to visas make their experience here better. Hopefully, Laura, some of those highly qualified kids will be able to stay on – a few more of them staying on to make a real contribution as citizens here with high skills we really want.
LAURA JAYES: Yeah, absolutely. We need engineers just for one example – there’s plenty more we need as well. Catriona, we spoke a lot over COVID-19 and how damaging this was for the university sector for a number of reasons, mostly because students couldn’t get here for two years. Has that recovery been completed, or have we seen almost too many students returning, if I could put it so crudely?
CATRIONA JACKSON: Absolutely, Laura, we’ve been discussing this for a long time, haven’t we? It’s nice to be out of those dark days when kids were forced to study in their basement in Beijing. It’s almost caught up, but there’s a bit of a lag. As you can understand, because some of those kids as you’ve already said weren’t able to get here, there’s a little bit of catching up to do. For a while, the numbers will be a little bit higher because there were kids who needed to go into their second or third year who deferred for a while. There’s a little bit of a glut of numbers just from people who need to catch up to finish their degrees. That’ll back off pretty soon. We are almost back to pre-COVID levels, but not quite. We do need to just understand that for a little while, there’s a little glut in numbers of total genuine students who just deferred their degree because they couldn’t get back here. Some things you just can’t study online, so some needed to wait. There are a couple of additional second years and third years who are catching up with stuff COVID-19 stopped them from doing.
LAURA JAYES: Catriona, we’ve spoken a lot about this, and I understand that you are finishing up in the role by the end of the year, so this might be one of the last times we speak. You’ve certainly been head of Universities Australia at a very challenging time – a time that no one could have ever predicted. Any regrets or anything you wish you could have done while you were in the role?
CATRIONA JACKSON: You could always do more, Laura, but I’m really proud of my sector. I’m really proud of how they survived through COVID-19 and not just survived, but thrived and really offered students as much as they possibly could. Students and staff transitioning to those courses online – thousands and thousands and thousands of courses – and being really resolute and tough and just getting through COVID-19. Now we’re entering an era in which we’ve got an enormous package of potential reforms on the table with the Accord – a massive opportunity. Terrific times ahead. After seven and a half years, it’s time for me to pass the baton to someone fresh and I’m looking forward to new opportunities. Thank you very much for the loyal and consistent coverage you’ve offered to us and the opportunities you’ve given me.
LAURA JAYES: It’s really important and sometimes we didn’t always agree, but it’s good to thrash it out. Catriona, thank you so much for giving us your time. Seven and a half years is certainly a very decent innings. We’ll see you soon.