April 23rd 2005

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Articles from this issue:


EDITORIAL: Telstra: the latest push for privatisation

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Howard to use Canberra power against states

EDUCATION: Cutting university places in the not-so-clever country

TRADE: Where do we go next with Japan?

FAMILY LAW: 'No-fault' principle undermines marriage

HISTORY: The Vietnam War - 30 years on

STRAWS IN THE WIND: A society of hoons? / The Nobel committee's Syllabus of Errors / The triumph of Roma

ASIA: China's burgeoning naval power

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Taiwan's high-tech industry: lessons for Australia

INDONESIA: Obstacles to an Indonesian partnership

CLIMATE: Kyoto: why we should be sceptical

BOOKS: FORGOTTEN ARMIES: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945

BOOKS: Despite the Barking Dogs, by Stanislaw Gotowicz

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Cutting university places in the not-so-clever country

by Patrick J. Byrne

News Weekly, April 23, 2005
To solve the growing shortage of skilled professionals, the Federal Government has been importing more migrants rather than funding more university places for Australians, according to a new Monash University study, writes Pat Byrne.

While many young Australians cannot gain access to universities, migration is being used to solve the huge shortage of highly paid professional jobs. Federal Government expansion plans for universities won't solve the problem.

It has been argued that Australia has been suffering from a shortage of skilled trades people and an oversupply of university graduates, but Monash University's Dr Bob Birrell has just published a report detailing the "serious shortage of university-trained professionals" owing to the "effective cap" it placed on domestic student numbers in the late 1990s.

Entitled The Myth of Too Many University Students,* the report argues that, between 1996 and 2003, the number of professional full-time positions in Australia grew by 253,000 (22 per cent), while the number of domestic full-time university places to fill these positions grew by just 3,149 places (2.2 per cent.)

By comparison, the Federal Government's emphasis on attracting full fee-paying overseas students has seen their numbers grow from 15,988 to 36,132 (or 125 per cent).

The unofficial cap on the availability of full-time places for Australian students stands in stark contrast to the strong growth in full-time, well-paid professional positions.

In the period 1996 to 2003, the number of people employed in full-time professional occupation grew from 1,136,000 to 1,389,000. This growth was across the major professional fields, including science, building and engineering. The numbers of business and information professionals grew 40 per cent, and within this field the number of computing professionals grew by 46 per cent and accountants by 27 per cent.

Yet there was a fall in the number of Australian students enrolling in information technology, management/commerce, engineering and science courses. Meanwhile, the number of overseas students enrolling in these areas grew, except in information technology.

The shortage of university places for Australian students has led to growing competition amongst high-school graduates. It has resulted in a big increase in enrolments in fee-paying independent and Catholic schools, as parents attempt to give their students a competitive edge in university enrolment.

To solve the shortage of professionals, the Federal Government has been pressured to increase the rate of skilled migration. Professionals have dominated the skilled program. In 2003-2004 some 25,600 entered as settlers, and another 11,000 visas were issued to former overseas students on completion of their courses.

So acute is the shortage that there were more professional migrants entering computing jobs than the total output from Australian universities. In engineering and accounting, about half of these professional positions are being filled by migrants owing to the shortage of domestic graduates.

The professions provide high-paying jobs to graduates. The median gross weekly wage for a graduate was $1,036 in 2001, while professionals make up 70 per cent of the highest income bracket, i.e. those earning more than $1,500 per week.

Hence Dr Birrell's latest report contrasts the Federal Government's lack of planning to provide adequate professional graduates, with Dr Birrell's earlier findings in his landmark study, Men and Women Apart: the Decline of Partnering in Australia, published last year. This showed that 43 per cent of young 25-39 year-old men were on incomes of less than $31,000, and indeed 29 per cent were not in full-time employment.

While the Federal Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, has announced that about 34,000 new Commonwealth-supported places will be phased in over the next four years, Dr Birrell points out that this will not solve the problem.

Some universities have been deliberately over-enrolling students. Funding for these extra enrolments is only $2,706 annually, which is less than for normal enrolments. But cash-strapped universities have been willing to take on extra students just to bring in more cash.

The Federal Government is clamping down on universities over-enrolling students. Hence, in terms of total enrolments, this clamp down will negate the announced increases in new places. The report says that, for the sake of the future of Australian youth, the number of government-subsidised, domestic university places should be in line with demand for the professional employment in Australia.

  • Pat Byrne

  • * "The Myth of Too Many University Students", by Dr Bob Birrell, Daniel Edwards, Ian Dobson and T. Fred Smith, in People and Place (Centre for Population and Urban Research, Monash University), Vol 13, no 1, 2005.

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