Thursday, March 30, 2006

A university dirty secret

The Australian today pre-publicises a forthcoming article in People and Place that blows the cover on one of the Australian university system's worst-kept 'dirty secrets'. Many of the foreign students purchasing education services in Australia are in fact purchasing Australian resident immigration status not education. While we brag about our success in exporting education services the truth is that the quality of our services often are not the motivation for people studying here.


MANY overseas students believe Australian universities are little more than factories" producing permanent residency visas by offering cheap courses tailored to meet migration requirements.IT, accounting and engineering courses were among the most popular degrees for Indian students hoping to stay in Australia after their studies, according to new research.

"These factories were considered to be places that had little to do with education and much to do with migration," the study, to be published in the Monash University journal People and Place, says.

Those institutions with the highest quota of Indians were known as "PR factories", where students could gain permanent residency after graduation.

"Even before coming to Australia they will have figured out which courses will provide the easiest way to PR and will base the course they enrol in on this," says the study by a University of Amsterdam PhD student Michiel Baas.

The report also found universities supported the PR model, adapting courses to encourage students to sign up.

"They (universities) freely admitted that they kept close track of changes in the the MODL (Migrant Occupation in Demand) list in order to predict which new courses would be in demand in the coming semester," it said.

The study comes as the Howard Government considers changes to the skilled migration program that could result in new strict visa conditions for overseas students.

Australia's universities are increasingly just not being competitive with overseas universities and are driven by deceptions such as this. The incentives to deceive are obvious when most universities face budget stringencies and when Vice-Chancellors are increasingly expected to be CEOs of profit-maximising firms rather than providers of academic leadership in institutions that deliver public as well as private goods. Governments have incentives to conceal all this since it lends credence to the lie that Australian universities are adequately funded - they can attract lots of international students. This article has potentially explosive impacts for Australian universities.


rabee said...

So what’s wrong with this type of immigration? Young immigrants pay thousands of dollars to attend a finishing school where they are immersed in Australian culture, perfect their English, get an education in an area that’s needed, and then immigrate straight into a job.

hc said...

Nothing particularly in terms of getting reasonable immigrants if we do but many don't work in areas that are needed or for which they are trained - they become unemployed and go on the dole or drive taxis with their IT or accounting degrees secure but irrelevant.

And disasterous signal-sending from the viewpoint of the Australian universities. Education exports our second biggest export suggesting we are doing a great job in funding hiugher education in Australia.

The immigration points system identifies areas of skill need and these are not being met by these schemes. Its farcical.

Sam Ward said...

Nothing wrong with this kind of education, these are the kind of people we want in Australia.

The problem here is that our higher education system is a shambles. Degrees like IT and Accounting are worse than useless, they are credentials that represent little real knowledge and steal 3-4 years of productivity from everyone who undertakes them - for no more benefit than could be gotten in a 2 week intensive course.

conrad said...

I personally thought that the undercurrent of this article was really that rich Australian universities were complaining about poor universities undercutting them. My heart bleeds, and I personally doubt there is very little correlation between the quality of undergraduate education and the wealth of the given university. It certainly didn't show up in the governements best teaching awards.

It also seems too easy for people to point to the worst abuses (CQU & Ballarat), but it might be noted that engineering, for instance, is a profession that is not oversupplied in Australia (and is it really true accounting is oversupplied ?). I bet the vast majority of Indian students who studied engineering in Australia, even at the crappy universities, are gainfully employed. That shows the success of the education programs, and Australians should be thankful for both their efforts and money.

It would be useful to get the real statistics for OS students, and see whether large amounts of them are unemployed or employed in jobs that do not utilise their degrees. My bet is that if anything, the proportion of them would be less than Australian students. That includes those with IT degrees -- these are hardly going to be worse degrees to have than the average business or arts degree.

Sam Ward said...

The question isn't "are you employed in a capacity that uses your degree". The question is "are you any more capable of doing that job with the degree than without it".

I'm sure there is a high demand for people with accounting degrees to work in call centres and data entry pools, the question is why the hell should people bother doing a degree to get this job?

The same goes for IT degrees. You DO NOT need a 3 year IT degree to create SQL requests in Access or make an Excel worksheet - let alone to type things into MS Word. I learned SQL in about 4 hours from a web tutorial. It isn't difficult.

Yet we are paying for thousands upon thousands of people to undertake these degrees each year in order to become glorified filing clerks. It's a ridiculous waste in terms of public spending AND lost productivity.

hc said...

Sam, I agree. In my view the value-added by a large number of 'business' and 'IT' programs is very low. For example many degrees now include units on teaching use of spreadsheets which I self-learned to use in a few hours with a friend. This applies across the board not just to immigration scams.

Conrad, I think there are many unemployed Indian accountants about the place driving taxis. Yes, I should cite data but don't have it - maybe in the full article discussed when published.

The high fees being charged to immigrants is being used to cross-subsidise local students. This would be fine if those people get well-paid jobs. But there are costs of provision and some of these are 'deadweight losses' to the economy as a whole.

I didn't read the story as resentment of wealthy universities by operations of poorer universities. Everyone seems to be into this type of marketing. Select programs that meet a niche in terms of immigration entry requirements, charge a comparatively low fee for entry and rake in piles of mullah.

But as Sam suggests, not adding much value-added in the process and costing a lot.

conrad said...

If there is no value added for these degrees (which I don't agree with -- I think there is some, although it can be pretty low), then why even mention the word "overseas student". Clearly this is the wrong target.

It seems to me that in this case OS = scapegoat for poor courses. If people think courses are poor because they are marketed at OS students, then this is clearly wrong. CHeck out any course that has very few OS students. There are lots of reasons for this, including many now out of the control of universities that are not to do with money.

These include : 1) The high school system is probably about 1 year down from 20 years ago in many areas (e.g., mathematics); 2) good students don't do harder courses as much anymore (e.g., chemistry) and 3) Students don't expect to do anywork at all to pass courses anymore, excluding the obligatory assignments and tests. Perhaps these now make up 50% of students. The lowest passable standard must therefore be targeted at them.

A lot of this stuff is now compensated for by people having to do paying postgraduate degrees in many areas to become members of their respective societies. This seems to be a good filter.

It might be noted that for some of the courses that have not reached rock bottom (e.g., Electrical Engineering at many places) the proportion of OS students is very high. If there is some causation here, then we can thank the OS students for keeping all the lazy Australian students honest.