International students and migration

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Changing patterns of migration in recent decades have blurred boundaries around the categories of student, migrant and worker. These new trends of migration are transforming ideas of community and belonging in Australia. Unlike previous decades when most migrants came to settle down and start new lives, 50 per cent of migrants today come to Australia on temporary visas. Migrant journeys have now become more fluid and transnational.

Students form a large chunk of these temporary migrants. International students are often engaged not just in education, but in expensive journeys towards gaining permanent migration status, making migration big business in Australia and India. International students are also an important source of labour in Australia. “Education–migration nexus” policies in Australia between 1998 and 2010 linked international education with different forms of temporary and permanent migration.

University of Western Sydney research fellow Shanthi Robertson’s book Transnational Student-Migrants and the State: The Education Migration Nexus (2013, Palgrave Macmillan) analyses the intersection between international education and migration. Shanthi’s book is based on her research exploring new forms of citizenship, transnationalism and urban transformation that have emerged within the education-migration nexus. The book is a study of student-migrants in terms of their transnationalism and their relationship to the state; it discusses the social and political consequences of the education-migration nexus, and how this nexus has given rise to a new form of transnational migrant.

Shanthi is currently working on two research projects: on new forms of temporary labour migration in traditionally settler-citizen contexts; and on housing, employment and social cohesion in multicultural neighbourhoods in Melbourne’s inner north. Sushil Suresh spoke to Shanthi about international students, new forms of migration in Australia and her research into these issues.

Tell us about the education-migration nexus.

The education-migration nexus is a policy trend in many migrant-receiving countries that links international education and labour migration. It often includes international graduates of local universities being granted particular visas to stay on and work in the host country, or being granted additional points for their local qualifications in points-tests for permanent migration. It also involves expanded work rights for those on student visas, and any behaviours or processes through which international education is used as a stepping stone for longer-term migration or for work opportunities. These policies attract more students to study in particular countries because of the chance to gain work experience, earn money and possibly settle there.

What is a designer migrant?

A ‘designer migrant’ is a term used to describe how governments try to construct and attract migrants who have characteristics that are seen to maximise their economic benefit to the host country, such as being young, proficient in the local language, and able to seamlessly integrate into the labour market. In the early days of education-migration nexus policies in Australia, student-migrants were seen to be potential ‘designer migrants’ because they were educated in Australia and were thought to easily be able to find jobs without having to deal with the recognition of overseas qualifications and social and cultural adjustment.

Could you give us examples of how education-migration nexus policies have shaped recent trends of migration from the Indian subcontinent.

India has been a key source country for both students and migrants in Australia for a number of years, they are the second largest group, after China, in terms of both student and skilled migrant intakes. However, the education-migration nexus certainly seemed to increase student enrolments from India. There was a rapid increase in Indian students studying in Australia between 2004 and 2009, with numbers jumping from less than 6.5 per cent of the international student population in 2004 to 19 per cent of the international student population in 2009. Much of this growth was in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector in courses that would lead to permanent residency. Now that policy has changed to cut off many of these direct pathways to residency, enrolments from India have gone down somewhat. However, many Indians still arrive to study and then potentially work in Australia through the 485 graduate work visa or through employer sponsorship for 457 or permanent visas after graduation. What is really different about this migration trend is that unlike skilled migrants who apply from offshore, student migrants often spend extended periods of time in Australia on a series of different temporary visas. The majority of these migrants from India are male, and the research has shown that they are a very mobile group. They move a lot around Australia for study, work and business opportunities, as well as back and forth between India and Australia and often on to other countries as well. Another key characteristic is that they engage frequently with the ‘migration industry’—using education and migration agents, lawyers, labour recruitment companies and other businesses that facilitate the migration process. This has made migration a big business in both Australia and India.

Can you tell us how temporariness is transforming the migrant experience, and how the settler-citizen migration paradigm is changing.

When non-British mass migration began on a large scale in Australia after 1945, the dominant assumption was that migrants were coming here to settle down, start new lives and have children who would become second generation Australians. Most migrants had nearly full social rights when they arrived, and usually had clear pathways to gain citizenship and thus full political rights. The government often offered support in the form of initial accommodation, English lessons, and sometimes even jobs. Migrants were considered to be ‘new Australians’ as permanent settlers. Now, however, 50 per cent of migrants arrive with temporary visas, which offer limited social and political rights and limited residence periods. This is changing how social, political and community belonging function in Australia, because migrants’ journeys are more fluid and more transnational. Some may only stay a short time, and some may experience a long and uncertain pathway to try and gain permanent residency or citizenship.

What is flexible citizenship. Is there a trend of mobile flexible citizenship in the Indian-Australian community? Could you give us examples.

Mobile flexible citizenship simply means people seeking to gain different national memberships so that they have more flexibility to move across different borders to achieve their various goals. Yes, there is a trend for flexible citizenship in many communities, including in the Indian-Australian community. An example would be an Indian family sending their son or daughter to Australia to study and then to gain permanent residency or citizenship. This could be part of a family strategy to be able to move back and forth between India and Australia for different purposes: to invest, do business, work or maybe eventually for the parents to retire. Australian citizenship could also be a pathway to migrating on to a third country, like the USA, or it could make people more competitive in the ‘marriage market’. The Indian community has particular avenues for flexible citizenship because of the Indian government’s Non-Resident Indian and Overseas Citizenship of India policies.

Would you say that Australian policy has in recent years aimed at attracting highly skilled migrants through education? Or would you say that Australian migration policy offering pathways to residency has been driven by the needs of the local economy to fill labour shortages in low-wage sectors?

It’s very difficult to determine exactly what intended and unintended outcomes of policy are. I would say that the original intention was to attract highly skilled labour and students to Australia, but the impact on labour supply in the low wage sector was a knock-on effect. Students and former students have now, however, become a very important source of unskilled and semi-skilled labour in Australia, particularly in industries like taxi driving and hospitality. They also play a key role as labour in small businesses within ethnic economies. They are also a key consumer group, with many businesses growing up to cater to their needs around accommodation, leisure, and education.

If the labour market integration of former students has been unsuccessful, could you list some of the reasons?

Discrimination in the labour market has been a key reason. Many employers are hesitant to employ former international students or those on temporary graduate visas, and sometimes only see linguistic and cultural deficits, rather than opportunities, in these applicants. Former international students may also lack the local networks, knowledge of local job-seeking practices, and job-seeking skills needed to secure employment. They also may not have gained some of the ‘soft skills’, like communication and interpersonal skills needed during their degree. Furthermore, student-migrants often need income immediately to support themselves so they often take on unskilled jobs rather than waiting for skilled opportunities. It’s difficult for any graduate, local or international, to get a great job straight out of university, but international graduates face a few additional barriers.

Your research attempts to frame migrant experience in terms of state power. However, the presence of large diasporas have played a role in attracting large numbers of Indian and Chinese students, for example, into Australia. The lives of students from these countries are closely tied to the social life of the diasporas from the same source countries. Do you think your account of migrant experience has left out an important part of the story, in terms of a local diaspora’s ability to influence state policy and debates about students?

I will be exploring this in more detail in a new project next year. Diasporas play a very key role, and in fact the presence of students is also transforming the diaspora. Members of the established ethnic community often provide social and cultural support for students, through ethnic and religious events and groups. And many students who arrive might have extended family or family friends already living in Australia who form an important part of their initial social network. However, there are also often linguistic, generational, regional and class differences between earlier waves of ‘settler’ migrants and new waves of students. And there is also the question of second and third generation Australians and how much they have in common, or don’t have in common, with the new arrivals of the same ethnic background. Some of the political and social issues faced by students as non-citizens are also very different from migrants who have citizenship. So I think diaspora communities are in a process of adjusting to include people who have more varied migration pathways and who might not be permanent settlers.

Published in The Indian Sun / Indian Magazine in Sydney

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