In Summary

There are signs of a strong rebound in Australia’s international education exports. Immigration department data shows that student visas granted to offshore applicants in the first quarter of 2014 reached their highest level in five years, a 27 per cent rise on the first quarter of 2013.

One of the likely contributing factors is the introduction of new post-study work arrangements under the revamped 485 visa. Students entering university courses will be able to obtain this visa when they graduate, permitting them to remain in Australia and work for at least two extra years after they complete their studies. The revamp was recommended by the 2011 Knight Review of the student visa program as a way to halt the slide in international enrolments caused by the high Australian dollar, assaults on overseas students and government moves to weaken the link between study in Australia and permanent residency.

After a sharp slump from mid 2009, as the chart shows, applications stabilised in late 2010 and began to slowly rise again in the following months. From early 2013, however, when the details of the changes to the 485 visa were announced, the recovery is pronounced.

Number of student visa applications lodged by month where applicant was offshore: year-on-year twelve months rolling average

With Australian universities increasingly dependent on student fees, vice-chancellors and Treasury officials will be well pleased with this outcome. Shanthi Roberston’s insightful study of the education-migration nexus suggests, however, that these changes could also have unforeseen and unintended consequences, not least for the student-migrants themselves.

First, though, why the hyphen? Why does Robertson talk of “student-migrants” rather than simply “international students”? This important question goes to the heart of her book.

When she was teaching academic English and university preparation courses to international students in the early 2000s, Robertson began to realise that her classes “consisted not just of transient students who would sojourn in Australia for a few years and return home” but also of “potential migrants who were in the early stages of a complex and relatively new type of migration pathway.”

Robertson was witnessing the emergence of Australia’s two-step migration program. Ten years later it is more fully developed. The annual intake of permanent skilled migrants to Australia is increasingly made up of people who have made the first step, and are already living in this country as temporary migrants – mostly as international students and skilled workers on 457 visas. In this context, there is no neat distinction between “migration for education” and “education for migration.” While some international students may come to Australia purely for study, and some may be explicitly seeking a pathway to Australian residency, in many cases the motivations are mixed or fluid.

Like the policies of host countries, student migrants’ plans and desires can “evolve over the course of a migration journey,” writes Robertson, “especially as education-migration trajectories are often protracted… journeys across various stages of temporariness and permanence.”

Robertson cites the example of Sunee, who came to Australia with her husband and two young children to do a PhD and who fully intended to return to Thailand when her studies were complete. After her daughters had spent three years in the Australian school system, however, Sunee felt rather differently about the future. While her own career prospects were brighter in Thailand, Sunee and her husband decided to seek permanent residence because they felt Australia offered better educational opportunities for their children.

Stories like Sunee’s are among the strengths of a book that has been primarily published for an academic audience – as evidenced by its excessive cover price – but deserves a much wider readership. By drawing on interviews and case studies, Robertson grounds her theoretical and empirical material in lived experience. She also marshals the evidence to mount a thorough critique of the tendency to portray international students according to two contradictory but interconnected tropes – as either opportunists or victims.

In the first case, students who seek “a migration outcome” are presented as opportunists attempting to manipulate the system or exploit loopholes that should be closed. The reality is that these student-migrants are entering into a transactional relationship with the Australian state, just as the Australian state is entering into a transactional relationship with them.

The federal government encourages international students to come to Australia for two main reasons: as a way of helping finance our education system, and as a potential source of skilled migrants whose education and training comes at zero cost to the Australian taxpayer. As Robertson points out, international students exhibit the ideal neoliberal characteristics of skill, self-reliance and flexibility. They contribute to the economy and pay taxes but must finance their own health insurance and “remain almost instantly deportable if they do not continue to meet the state’s criteria for desirability.”

Post-study work visas and the potential for (though not the guarantee of) permanent residence sweeten Australia’s education-migration deal. It should come as no surprise that international students respond to this contract in equally economically rational and calculating ways, becoming, as scholar Lesleyanne Hawthorne puts it, “highly discerning education and migration consumers – researching global options to select the optimal study, migration and lifestyle ‘package.’”

This story also suits the fluctuating labour market needs of Australian business to be able to draw on a flexible workforce of temporary migrants for both high and low-skilled jobs. State governments rely on migrant nurses and doctors on 457 visas to staff hospitals, for instance, and retailers draw on international students to fill late night shifts in petrol stations and convenience stores.

So just as the “dominant paradigm” of international education “has moved from diplomatic project to export industry,” according to Robertson, so too has the immigration regime shifted from “nation-building and permanent settlement to the provision of a highly skilled and knowledge-based workforce, flexible to the demands of industry and the labour market.”

The way international students shrewdly negotiate the education-migration deal on offer from the Australian state sits uncomfortably with the way they are frequently characterised as victims – or, in Robertson’s words, as “the unwitting ‘cash-cows’ of unscrupulous migration agents and education providers who were being ‘milked’ by an exploitative system on the basis of their dreams of achieving residency.”

After putting the education-migration nexus in its international context and documenting the specificities of the Australian case, Robertson devotes much of the second half of her book to examining the subjective student-migrant experience, particularly students’ encounters with the permanent residency regime, citizenship and cross-border lives. In doing so, Robertson shows how international students not only seek to maximise advantage in their individual dealings with the system, but also assert their identities and rights, and collectively express political demands.

Along the way, Robertson reveals the value that students place on citizenship as something far more than instrumental. Rather than seeing citizenship as simply a contractual relationship with the state that provides a ticket to entitlements or a safety net, international students feel that citizenship will “cement their attachment and sense of belonging in Australia.”

In order to reach this point (and there is no guarantee they will), international students must travel through “a long tunnel,” experiencing a protracted period in which they are “almost migrants” – living and studying in Australia, paying fees and taxes, but leading precarious and uncertain lives and enduring the often-intense anxiety of negotiating multiple “gates” that could ultimately lead to membership of Australian society.

The introduction of the 485 post-study work visa represents a further refinement of the education-migration deal. The growth in new visa applications suggests that international students are willing to embrace the offer, but the consequences will be an extension of their precarious, staggered and uncertain path to permanent residency and/or citizenship.

As Robertson notes, it is quite conceivable now for international students to remain studying and working in Australia for ten years without any guarantee of permanent residency. Her book alerts us to the bigger picture – to the destabilisation of “the paradigms of settlement, permanency and full citizenship” that have characterised postwar migration in Australia. •

Written by Peter Mares, Swinburne University of Technology. This article originally appeared on Inside Story. You can read the original article here