Student visa rule changes upset Oz research institutes

International education sector is Australia`s third-largest export industry.

Melbourne: Top Australian research universities have severely criticised the federal government for "failing" to tackle problems caused by changes to student visa rules, saying that the new measures appear to be denting the multi-billion-dollar foreign education industry.

"We just went through an unedifying election where the leaders of the two main parties (ruling Labor and opposition Liberal) put up the `not welcome here` sign in flashing lights," executive director of `Group of Eight` universities, Michael Gallagher, said.

"Their messages were geared to domestic audiences but they resonated with international audiences too," he was quoted by `The Age` as saying.

They have done "damage" to Australia`s reputation abroad as a welcoming society that values ideas and diversity, Gallagher said. "They have a responsibility to rectify the problem."

Referring to a statement issued by Immigration Minister Chris Evans that "Australia continues to welcome international students", he said it was not an acceptable response.

Earlier, the Group reportedly wrote to both the political parties - Labor and Liberal - seeking changes to the current visa system and asking for a statement of support from Prime Minister Julia Gillard about Australia`s commitment to the international education sector.

Evans` statement blamed the Howard Government for "a student programme which failed to adequately detect fraudulent applications and lacked the necessary safeguards to ensure student visa holders were genuine and had sufficient financial support."

He said the problems had led to an "unsustainable explosion" in the number of international students, and that the Labor government had to act.

"The reforms introduced by Labor were designed to target high-risk caseloads, deliver integrity and ensure only genuine students with the financial capacity to live and study in Australia are granted visas," he said.

However, Gallagher said Evans needed to do more. "If Senator Evans believes his media release is an adequate response ... then he just doesn`t understand the nature of the problem," he said.

Gallagher renewed his demand that the government publicly support the international education sector, which is Australia`s third-largest export industry, worth 17 billion dollar a year.

His comments came as the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) called on Prime Minister Gillard to create a parliamentary secretary for international education.

IEAA president Stephen Connelly said the government needed to increase its support for the sector.

"The crucial need is for higher level political oversight over the industry. The current situation - where five Commonwealth departments have responsibility for aspects of international education - is untenable and must be addressed," he said.

Connelly said if the decline in foreign student numbers -- including those from India -- was not reversed the sector faced job losses of up to 35,000 by the end of next year.


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