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International Education Drives Economic Growth, Despite Political Backlash

Economists from the National Australia Bank (NAB) have unearthed a significant revelation within the latest national accounts data, indicating that education exports, primarily fueled by spending from international students residing in Australia, have contributed a substantial 0.8 percentage points to the annual GDP growth. This figure exceeds more than half of the overall 1.5 percent annual growth rate recorded in December.

Contrary to the government's efforts to sway public opinion by painting international education in a negative light, the industry has once again demonstrated its pivotal role as the only non-mining-related export that leaves a tangible impact on the economy. Despite a natural decline in international student numbers following the unprecedented peak in 2023—a result of three years of pent-up growth during Covid lockdowns—the sector's significance remains undeniable.

However, the Albanese Labor Government, evidently wary of any perceived vulnerabilities regarding borders and migration, has chosen to sacrifice international students as a means to showcase their toughness, possibly in contrast to their political opponent and former Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton. Minister Clare O’Neil has been quoted in AFR as saying “Change is difficult. I recognise that for a decade, there have been no serious attempts to properly regulate this sector and make sure that its growth is quality and sustainable. We will help providers work through these changes, but we will not shy away from making them.”

The international education sector is already one of the most heavily regulated industries, governed by stringent laws such as the ESOS Act, National Code, and Migration Act, along with general company regulations. With dual regulatory bodies and an International Education Ombudsman in place, oversight is comprehensive, regardless of the political party in power.

Despite claims of assistance through impending changes, the reality for those within the sector tells a different story. International students, their agents, and educational providers who have adhered to visa application procedures are now facing unprecedented hurdles. There has been no documented changes to visa grants apart from higher English levels, financial requirements, and prioritisation of visa processing by risk level. The collateral damage are students who paid A$700+ for an Australian visa (non-refundable), fees for a medical check, have sent their tuition fees to an Australian institution and have waited months for an outcome - what many are receiving are cut-and-paste refusals on economic (not academic) grounds. This is supposedly weeding out non-genuine students. There are many cases of students nationalities being mixed up on letters such as an Argentinian student being refused over the average wage that is being paid in Colombia vs. the average wage being paid in Australia. This shows the weak economic argument and that individual students cases are not being read but likely refusal quotas are being met.

As the Albanese Government seeks to maneuver the international education sector for political gain in the lead-up to the upcoming election year, it's imperative to recognise the invaluable contribution of international students to Australian society. Beyond economic contributions, these students have proven themselves essential during times of crisis, filling critical labor shortages post-Covid lockdowns. Attempts to tarnish their image or undermine the sector's significance are unfounded, as evidenced by the undeniable role international students play in enriching the fabric of Australian society.



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