Australia's skilled immigration policy criticised

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Enrolment in Australian university computer courses has dropped to its lowest level in 15 years, and immigration critics are saying it's because too many skilled migrant visas have been issued to overseas students, making it tough for graduates to find a job.

A Monash University study on employment in the technology sector, released yesterday, claims the federal Government's general skilled migration (GSM) program has been "an abject failure in public policy terms" for the IT industry.

Bob Kinnaird, an immigration expert who wrote the paper for Monash, said skilled migration in the information and communications technology sector had been hijacked by cash-hungry universities, which continued to attract big numbers of full-fee paying overseas students with the promise of a migration visa on graduation.

"The GSM was effectively increasing the IT graduate labour supply by nearly 80 per cent at a time when 30 per cent of Australian ICT graduates could not find full-time work," he said.

Published in the Monash University Centre for Population and Urban Research's People and Places Magazine, the paper says the IT labour market oversupply has been accompanied by plummeting enrolments by local students in university-level IT courses. "These enrolments have now fallen to levels not seen since the early 90s," it says.

Mr Kinnaird said the linking of international education policy and the skilled migration program had made the system inflexible.

"Onshore visas for overseas students have made it harder to 'turn off the tap' when local market conditions change," he said. "In IT, the higher education 'tail' has been wagging the GSM 'dog' to the detriment of Australian graduates.

"The higher education industry is a sectional interest in immigration, but its interests have come to dominate policy on the issue."

He said the skilled migration program was "riddled" with similar conflicts of interest that had been poorly managed by the Immigration Department.

While overseas labour markets would continue to be an important source of skilled workers for the IT industry, Mr Kinnaird said the skilled migration program was poorly targeted, granted too many visas to recent graduates from overseas, and was not aiming for experienced workers with niche skills.

Unemployment in the industry has been at record highs in the five years since the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, yet IT workers continue to make up the biggest single skills group under the skills migration policy.

Labor education and training spokeswoman Jenny Macklin says increased investment in local training programs was an option the Government had been unwilling to pursue.

"The Howard Government has dropped the ball on training Australians," Ms Macklin said.

"They are over-relying on an imported skills quick-fix. Labor's priority is clear - train Australians first and train them now."

She said an alarming OECD report in 2005 on education had showed Australia was the only nation to have cut public investment in tertiary education since 1995.

The Immigration Department said it relied on survey information from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations to decide where skilled migrants were most needed in the economy.

A spokesman said it had received no data suggesting a vast oversupply of IT graduates seeking work in Australia.