Accounting still popular with overseas students despite tight jobs market
Posted on September 25, 2014
A 40 per cent jump in new overseas postgraduate accounting students in 2013 was the sole driving force in the critical tertiary accounting education market, as local students continued to shun the field.
International students now dominate accounting courses, making up a record 79 per cent of the 17,600 enrolled postgraduate students in 2013, according to data from the federal Department of Education.
At the undergraduate level, international accounting students made up about 55 per cent of the more than 25,400 enrolled students, a percentage that is down from a peak of 64 per cent in 2011.
These fee-paying overseas accounting students, lured to Australia by the promise of a high-quality education and a potential pathway to migration, bring in significant and much needed revenue to cash-strapped universities.
In 2013, overseas accounting students made up the second-largest group of enrolled international students at both the undergraduate and post-graduate level, behind only business and management enrollees.
In the same year, the number of new local post-graduate accounting students fell more than 8 per cent to 1500. The data was more dire at the undergraduate level, with the number of new undergraduate domestic and international accounting student falling for a fourth consecutive year.
This massive cohort of new international accounting students will face a difficult jobs market if they choose to find work in Australia after graduation.
Accounting is on the Skilled Occupation List, a list of in-demand occupations, meaning international graduates can obtain a 485 Temporary Graduate Visa and work in Australia for up to 18 months.
The Australian Financial Review has reported on the challenges international accounting graduates face finding an accounting job, with employers reluctant to hire foreigners without permanent residency.
The situation is little better for local accounting graduates. Don Rankin, the executive director at mid-market firm Pitcher Partners, said the firm received almost 2000 applications for 85 graduate positions this year, the equivalent to 23 applicants for every job.
Almost one in four bachelor-degree domestic accounting graduates are still looking for work four months after graduation, the highest unemployment level since 1992, according to Graduate Careers Australia figures.
COMPLAINTS ABOUT GRADUATE QUALITY
Another large firm, Grant Thornton, employed just over 100 graduates this year but chief executive Robert Quant said he was starting to get complaints from some offices about the quality of graduates. He questioned whether this grumbling stemmed from an actual demise in the quality of accounting education or from a dramatic shift in the type of skills professional services firms need.
“We need different skills in people. We’re recruiting from different pools,” Mr Quant said.
Industry bodies, CPA Australia and Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand, maintain there is a shortage of accountants in Australia.
Federal Labor member Kelvin Thomson has called for accounting to be taken off the Skilled Occupation List.DIBP advises using the initial consultation as an opportunity to ask the agent for a written estimate of their fees.
“Australia’s large spike in the accounting overseas students program is placing unprecedented pressure on local accounting graduates,” he said. “The claim that Australia is short of accountants is laughable. The level of applicants for each accounting job is the highest of any profession tracked by the Department of Employment.”
The government, as well as other experts, point to multiple factors that may be behind the increase in international students.
“Since 2011, a number of significant changes have been implemented in the student visa program to enhance the competitiveness and integrity of Australia’s international education sector,” said Michaelia Cash, the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.
The changes included the genuine temporary entrant requirement introduced in late 2011, the improved visa issuing process implemented in March 2012, and a temporary working visa that was available from March 2013.
Senator Cash said “only a small proportion of former student visa holders go on to be granted permanent independent skilled visas”.
The deputy dean of education at Monash Business School, Robert Brooks, said: “Part of the story is clearly is an [improving] macroeconomic environment, part of the story is around [lower] exchange rates, and part of the story is stability in migration policy around where the students can get employment opportunities.
“Accounting students are very important to us; having a set of international students in discipline areas is clearly important to the revenue base.”
Asked about the tight jobs market, he said the university concentrated on making students employable.
“I think the dilemma around the labour market side is some people are doing [accounting] to be accountants and some are doing it to get broad-based business skills,” he said.
“For us, it’s making sure you have a curriculum that covers off on all the technical accounting problems, but it always gives people the broader problem-solving skills.”
The desire to immigrate still drives the international education market, according to veteran education agent John Findley, who is also a registered migration agent. He feels international student numbers were normalising at the post-graduate level after a drop in 2010 and 2011 due to changes in migration policy, the high Australian dollar and persistent rumours that accounting would be removed from the skilled occupation list.
“Despite what the pundits would have you believe, it isn’t possible to say with confidence what drove the decline without asking the specific question of those who did not apply,” Mr Findley said.
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