Crispin Hull / Jobkeeper and the Future of International University Students

Before going on to universities, China and population, a quick word on Jobkeeper.

Figures made public by the Parliamentary Budget Office last week, largely to the unrelenting work of ACT Labor MP Andrew Leigh, show that $20 billion in JobKeeper money was handed to companies whose revenue actually rose during the first 12 months of the scheme.

Very few companies have paid the money back, unless shamed in to it by threats of consumer boycotts. The money was supposed to support jobs, but most of the $20 billion paid to companies who revenue was unaffected by Covid went to share dividends (including a lot to foreigners), share buy-backs, and executive bonuses.

JobKeeper was a good idea because it kept the employer-employee relationship intact. But it was badly executed. Not only badly executed, but illustrated an attitude and culture on the part of the Coalition that assumes nice, hard-working people in expensive suits would never do the wrong thing and could be trusted with self-regulation, whereas welfare recipients had to be monitored and cajoled with things like Robodebt.

JobKeeper should have had a mechanism for the return of the money if the self-assessment of reduced revenue proved inaccurate, or, heaven forbid, deliberately over-stated.

JobKeeper’s mismanaged $20 billion is the equivalent of $2000 per household, according to Leigh. Robodebt cost $112 million in compensation, and perhaps as much as the same again in other costs.

Surely, just these two things should put paid to the notion that the Coalition is a the best economic manager and the most prudent user of public money – that’s leaving aside the waste of public money on sports rorts and the carpork rorts

Yes, we should have an election on trust and integrity. But to run an integrity campaign, Labor would have to make sure it comes to it with clean hands. That means fixing thing like branch-stacking in Victoria.

As it happens, the universities were excluded from JobKeeper. There are lessons here. It is fair to say that the Coalition sees the universities as hotbeds of inner-city, Green-voting, chardonnay-drinking, climate activists. What better way to punish them than excluding them from JobKeeper.

The universities were doubly hit because they lost at a stroke all new international students and many existing ones who returned home as soon as possible rather than stay in Australia for the total time of their course, in some cases years. About 20 per cent of international students have been lost between 2019 and 2021. That figure will no doubt increase next academic year.

The universities, of course, should never have allowed themselves to be so beholden to international students. At the end of 2018, at 400,000, they made up a third of higher-education enrolments. The universities were encouraged to do so because of the ideological position of the Government over the past five years: that the universities should act like independent businesses, and to make them behave so, their funds would be cut.

Of those 400,000 international higher-education enrolments, 40 per cent were from China. India was next on nearly 20 per cent.

So, what is to happen when the borders re-open? Or more importantly, what should happen?

The universities should reduce their dependence on international students. Even when borders open, universities will be vulnerable to other forces if they remain so dependent.

The Chinese Communist Party can turn the tap on or off at will for whatever reason it wants. Australia is out of favour with China, so the party has imposed trade bans on specious grounds, flying in the face of international trade law. It has also discouraged study in Australia and the learning of English.

The universities should learn the lesson that other Australian industries have learned, though I hesitate to describe universities as “industries”.

China has slapped bans on coal, beef, barley, wine and seafood. As a result, in the 2020-21 year the lost sales to China amounted to $5.4 billion. But those same exporters gained new sales of $4.4 billion in other markets. The balance was either lost or sold locally for lower profit. (Remember the sudden appearance of cheap lobster at seafood markets.)

Better still, the universities should wean themselves off so many foreign students altogether. A lot of the so-called “export” earnings are illusory. The fees are not net earnings. There are a lot of hidden costs in supporting such a large international student base.

Moreover, a lot of international student education is a backdoor immigration racket.

In 2020, the then Department of Immigration and Citizenship reported on a survey that said, “More than half the surveyed student visa holders planned to stay in Australia at the conclusion of their studies and almost all Skilled-Graduate (Temporary) visa (Subclass 485) holders planned to seek permanent residency.”

As an aside, though, as universities hopefully wean themselves off international students, Australia could take the opportunity to show the Chinese Communist Party and the world the importance of liberal democracy, individual rights, the rule of law and doing the ethical thing.

An educated (pardon the pun) guess would put the number of Chinese students in China with partially completed Australian tertiary qualifications at around 100,000.

Australia should not use them as some sort of bargaining chip in a trade war. Rather Australia should make it clear that we respect individual rights; obligations (ethical and contractual) made to individuals; and the rule of law. Australia should unilaterally tell Chinese authorities that these students would be welcomed in Australia to complete the studies they have already begun. But with a strong warning that it is not to become a backdoor immigration scheme.

In general, though, Covid should have taught us the need to be more self-reliant and importance of training people already here rather than the environmentally destructive and economically dubious method of bringing in more people to fill “skills shortages”.

Covid and the whole JobKeeper/JobSeeker experience should have also taught us the importance of stable employment and full employment for the health of society and to reject an immigrant-based labour pool to keep wages low and provide ever more customers for the retail and property markets.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 16 October 2021.

Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor  |  ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia


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