Targeting foreign students will have huge fallout for nation

By Melanie Macfarlane
December 4 2023 - 5:30am

A reported plan to impose a tax on international students, and cap student numbers is the latest move by government to shift the political narrative around the causes of our housing crisis and cast overseas students as convenient fall guys.

It also appears likely immigration will become a dominating issue in the next federal election, with both sides of politics already posturing over migrant numbers, visas and asylum seekers.

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What happened to "celebrating our multicultural success" and the economic prosperity that migrants bring to Australia? The latter was the preface to the migration review report that was released earlier this year and that the government has yet to act on, though Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil has promised a new migration strategy before the year is out.

Now, all we seem to be hearing is how international students are to blame for soaring house prices and rents. The reality is, overseas student numbers are not that much more than pre-pandemic, with figures from Studymove showing the number of student visa holder in Australia currently, is now approximately 6 per cent above 2019 levels. These numbers are to be expected, given the post-pandemic spike, and normal pent-up demand.

Amongst international education agents and providers, there is growing concern about Brand Australia, and how mooted taxes, and an increasing number of negative international education stories are reverberating through the international student sector in some of our most important markets. There is a sense from our sector that the rhetoric from some quarters is spiralling out of control.

For example, there is a totally out-of-touch suggestion from the Grattan Institute, that Australia increase student visa fees from $700 to $2500, whilst in Canada, which is a leading destination for overseas students it is a mere $150.

International students have become an easy target. Picture by Max Mason-Hubers
International students have become an easy target. Picture by Max Mason-Hubers

With social media sending out waves of negative stories, and as student visa refusals soar to 90 per cent for the VET sector, it's likely that Australia's loss, will be Canada's gain.

Yet Canada is the country that Australia has constantly looked to for inspiration for its new migration strategy.

Now it appears government can't make up its mind about our international education future, which is perhaps why the new migration strategy is taking so long to release.

At the recent ICEF international education fair in Berlin, one industry speaker talked about the factors that influence students when choosing study destinations around the world.

One of those factors, is public policy. If the flow of negative stories continue, and if the federal government continues on the path it appears to be taking, in six months to a year's time, we'll almost certainly have seen a considerable downturn in student numbers to Australia.

Education agents in Latin America and other regions are already choosing to send prospective students elsewhere and given that 75 per cent of students come to Australia through education agents, the effect of heavy-handed wholesale changes to the sector can't be underestimated.


Team Australia, as the recent interim report on international education termed it, needs to comprise of all sectors, from education agents to VET institutes to universities.

The push to cull all VET sector colleges is short-sighted, as the existing TAFEs simply can't cope with the demand for trade courses, for example, that will train up both domestic and international students to move into areas of dire shortage in Australia in the short and long-term.

Over pruning can permanently disfigure your tree, or even kill it. Collaboration is key at this point, considering all the voices throughout the sector, including those who have been promoting Team Australia for years with passion and integrity.

International students might be a convenient and easy target for a government under pressure from economic factors many decades in the making, but if we continue to demonise students for choosing Australia as a study destination and impose overly restrictive rules for the sector and students, as a result, our country, education sector and community will be much a poorer one.

  • Melanie Macfarlane is executive director of the International Student Education Agents Association.