International business graduates facing weak job prospects

words by kate mcintosh

Despite a soaring number of international students enrolling in business and commerce courses, job and migration opportunities to Australia are likely to be increasingly scarce after graduation.

Professor Lesleyanne Hawthorne from the University of Melbourne said Australia does not have the capacity to absorb the large wave of international graduates in business and commerce fields.“The main issue is labour market demands change and it’s getting much harder to find jobs (in these fields),” she said. “The reality is Australia just doesn’t need so many people with those qualifications.”

Generous migration pathways, less onerous entry requirements and lower course costs a decade ago made business and commerce courses an attractive option for foreign students.

By 2006, around two thirds of Indian graduates and one-third of Chinese graduates migrated to Australia, a large proportion of whom had qualifications in business-related fields, said Prof Hawthorne. In 2016, a total of 146,357 international students in higher education were enrolled in management and commerce fields, a 12% increase on 2015, according to Commonwealth Department of Education and Training figures.Current enrolment trends are also skewed towards the so-called STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – courses.

Enrolments in these courses were up 16% in the same period, climbing to 83,407 in 2016, with health rounding out the top three most popular courses with 23,959 enrolments.In recent years skilled migration has been a very successful pathway for international graduates, with up to 78% of medical graduates going onto work in Australia, including a very large number of nurses. But Prof Hawthorne’s research over an eight-year period shows that in 2016 demand for temporary skilled migrants under Australia’s 457 visa scheme declined sharply in a number of fields, including nursing and engineering. Although there has been an increase in demand for accounting graduates, the numbers selected are now very small and in decline.

“A lot of international students are enrolled in courses that will no longer be in demand when they graduate,” said Prof Hawthorne.While her research showed that demand for permanent skilled migrants with health, engineering and IT qualifications was still increasing, she said that declines in temporary skills needs was likely to signal a further drop off in migration opportunity in a number of fields for both categories.

The federal government has announced that it will scrap 457 visas from April next year. In a major shift, temporary migrants on two-year visas will have no prospect to apply in Australia for permanent skilled migration.

The changes are causing concern among students who were hoping their qualifications would help secure work and migration opportunities to Australia after they graduate.

“From the students’ point of view it is difficult and it is something that is very hard to adjust to that once they pass out from their degree they will not have the opportunities that they thought would be there,” said Council of International Students Australia (CISA) spokesperson Arjun Madathil.

Data from the Department of Education and Training shows that there were 554,179 international students in Australia in 2016, a 10.9% increase on 2015.China and India continue to be the strongest source markets, representing 30 and 11% respectively of the overall figure.

In 2015, management and commerce was the most popular field of study for Chinese students in Australia, with society and culture and IT also in the top five fields.ISANA International Education Association National President Mary Ann Seow said many students, particularly from the Indian subcontinent, completed their undergraduate degree at home before going on to do their postgraduate abroad in the hopes of skilled migration and gaining a competitive advantage in the job market.

She said family expectations and the heavy financial burden of studying abroad meant an enormous amount of thought went into course selection, with students weighing up options for skilled migration, employability, costs and language ability.

“When you invest so much into your study and your life, you’re going to choose very carefully where you put that money,” she said.She said the high language requirements for courses such as medicine, law, education and the sciences often ruled out foreign students from entering these fields.

Despite the oversupply of graduates in certain fields Prof Hawthorne said universities continued to market popular courses to prospective international students.

“It is not the job of universities to pick who migrates, all they can do is pick who goes into those courses,” she said.Adds Seow: “You can see where there is interest and that is where you market.”

She said measuring graduate outcomes remained difficult due to limited data and the fact that many students returned home and used their qualifications there or moved into other fields.

“If graduates weren’t happy in terms of word of mouth, then [other] students wouldn’t come, but they keep coming, so that must mean we’re doing something right,” she said.Prof Hawthorne also notes that Australia provides generous opportunity for international students to migrate compared to the UK and the US, where there have been harsh recent policy changes.

About the author
Kate McIntosh has worked throughout regional and remote Australia covering court, local government, health and sport. She also held positions in Latvia, Italy and Sudan. Most recently she spent 18 months mentoring young journalists in East Timor and currently works at Backstory News Magazine on the Sunshine Coast.