Tapri blog

Australian universities’ dependence on overseas students: too much of a good thing

Bob Birrell and Katharine Betts
(This post is republished from John Menadue’s site, Pearls and Irritations, 27 December 2018.)

In November 2018 we published an analysis of the higher education overseas student industry. It was framed around the remarkable growth in the share of commencing overseas university students to all commencing students over the years 2012 to 2016. This share increased from 21.8 per cent in 2012 to 26.7 per cent in 2016.

Since publication, higher education statistics for 2017 have been released. They show  that the share of commencing overseas students to all commencing students have increased to 28.9 per cent. In the case of the Group of 8 (Go8) universities, by 2017 this share had reached well over 40 per cent in the University of Sydney, ANU, and the University of NSW (Table 1).

The following brief summary indicates why such extreme reliance on overseas students should be of concern. We then explore another issue, not canvassed in the November report. This is the implications of the rapid growth in overseas student commencements for access to higher education on the part of domestic students.

This a highly topical matter because in December 2017 the Coalition government announced that it would henceforth cap the level of domestic higher education enrolments. Since that time, Australia’s universities, including the Go8, have mounted an offensive against this decision on the grounds that it limits opportunities for domestic students. Yet the enrolment data examined below indicates that, at least since 2012, the Go8 have effectively enforced just such a cap on domestic enrolments.

A summary of the November report’s findings
The November report argued that the overseas student industry was in a precarious state because of its increased reliance on overseas student enrolments. The share of overseas commencing students to all commencing students at Australia’s universities increased from 21.8 per cent in 2012 to 26.7 per cent in 2016.

We concluded that the tail was wagging the dog. That is, such was our universities’ reliance on overseas students, that most were prioritising the health of the overseas student industry over the educational needs of domestic students. In the case of research, the universities’ focus was primarily on basic research. This is because it is this that is relevant to their aspiration to achieve a place in the top 100 institutions in the global university ratings systems. As documented in the November report, research of this kind is the most likely to be accepted by the top international journals that drive the ratings system. Research focused on local priorities wouldn’t make the cut.

Australia’s overseas student industry is split into two distinctive markets. The first includes most of the Go8 universities, where overseas students were charged some $40,000 a year, mainly for courses at the undergraduate and post-graduate-by-coursework level in business and commerce. Most of the students are Chinese. Indeed, between 2012 and 2016, the total increase in overseas student commencers at Go8 universities was 13,738 . Of these 12,198 were Chinese.

Students’ (or parents’) willingness to pay for such high priced courses can be attributed to the fact that they deliver credentials from a university rated in the international top 100. (This includes almost all of the Go8.) Qualifications from these universities appear to be highly regarded in the Chinese labour market. Relatively few of these Chinese students stay on in Australia after completing their studies.

This enrolment pattern helps explain the universities’ focus on basic research. In order to maintain enrolments from China, they have to promote such research because it scores best on the metrics used by the international ratings systems.

The second market is composed of almost all the other universities. The number of overseas students enrolling in these universities also increased significantly between 2012 and 2016 (though at a slower rate than occurred in the Go8). However the countries of origin were primarily located in the Indian subcontinent. Most of these students were attracted to Australian universities because of the access their enrolment gave them to the Australian labour market and thus to the potential of a permanent residence visa.

We concluded that the overseas student industry was in a precarious state. In the case of the Go8, overseas enrolments were vulnerable on three points.

First is the risk of reputational damage on account of the poor quality of the education overseas students are receiving. In the business and commerce faculties at the Go8, where Chinese students often constitute the majority, such courses have had to be made less demanding so that the many Chinese students with relatively limited English language skills can cope with their requirements. Then there is the risk from geopolitical tensions that threatened Chinese enrolments. And finally there is the risk of competition from other countries.

For the other universities the main issue is current changes in the rules governing overseas-student access to the Australian labour market and to long-term employment contracts. This means that their chances of obtaining a permanent residence visa are contracting. As a consequence we argued that these changes would diminish the attraction of enrolling for higher education at a non-Go8 Australian university.

Table 1: Per cent share of commencing onshore* overseas students to all onshore commencing students, Go8 universities and all Australian higher education institutions, 2012, 2016 and 2017

2012 2016 2017
Group of eight:
University of Melbourne 27.3 36.2 38.7
University of Sydney 22.8 39.2 42.9
Monash 24.0 36.5 39.8
ANU 28.8 36.5 43.1
University of Queensland 27.4 31.8 37.0
University of NSW 30.2 38.7 42.9
University of Adelaide 28.5 28.3 31.4
University of WA 19.1 20.8 25.1
All Australian higher education institutions 21.8 26.7 28.9

Source: Department of Education and Training, Higher Education Statistics, Table 1.10, Commencing Students by State, Higher Education Provider, Citizenship and Residence Status.
* The term onshore is used to distinguish overseas students being educated in Australia from those in Australian campuses set up overseas. The latter are not included in these figures.

Higher education opportunities
Australia’s universities repeatedly assure the Australian public that increased enrolments of overseas students are not damaging the prospects of domestic students aspiring to a university education. Rather, they state that the two sets of enrolments are independent of each other; opportunities for locals are not being crowded out.

How could this be? Well, according to a 2014 policy document from the Go8, international students actually ‘directly facilitate domestic participation in higher education’. This is achieved, the document claims, because revenue from overseas student fees contributes to the costs of domestic education. It asserts that international student fees ‘subside each domestic student by around $1,600’.

This might seem plausible given that domestic enrolments have increased since the removal of enrolment caps for domestic students in 2009. Over the years 2012 to 2017 (years in which overseas enrolments expanded rapidly) the number of commencing domestic students at Australia’s universities increased from 370,314 to 416,371.

The result is that a very high share of the cohort of university age are currently enrolled as higher education students. In fact, university competition for potential domestic students is such that some universities have seen a drop in their domestic enrolments over the past couple of years. Concern that this enrolment scramble had gone too far (and was costing the Commonwealth government too much in funding) prompted the Coalition government in December 2017 to announce that it would re-impose enrolment caps in 2018 (caps which Labor promises to withdraw should it win government in 2019).

The universities have responded to these caps by insisting throughout 2018 that they amount to a reduction in opportunities for domestic students. According to Margaret Gardiner, Vice Chancellor at Monash University, the cap acts as a funding freeze which ‘will limit the share of highly-skilled well-paid jobs in our economy that can be done by qualified Australians in the decades ahead’. Or, in the words of the newly appointed (in June 2018) Chief Executive  of Universities Australia, the reinstating of caps puts an end to the ‘unearthing and unleashing’ of talent that has occurred since the caps were removed, starting in 2009.

If expansion of overseas student enrolment was helping to create opportunities to increase domestic enrolments you would expect that more domestic students would be gaining places in Go8 universities. Over the period 2012 to 2017, when there were no caps on the number of domestic students that any university could enrol, domestic student commencements at Go8 universities barely moved. They were 87,939 in 2012 and 87,930 in 2017. By contrast, over these same years the number of overseas student commencements at the Go8 increased from 30,320 to 56,363. (The data are drawn from Higher Education Statistics releases, various years.)

Given that there were no caps in place, the Go8 could have taken more domestic students over these years. Many more thousands of these students would have jumped at the opportunity to attend a Go8 university. They were precluded from entry by the high ATAR  entry thresholds imposed by Go8 universities. Such is the Go8 universities’ prestige that they attract the best domestic performers in secondary school exams. Like the overseas students, domestic students know that a credential from a Go8 university gives them a competitive advantage in the labour market (in this case within Australia).

The stabilisation of domestic enrolments was not because the Go8 lacked the capacity to increase their student load. They did have the capacity, but all of it has been taken up by increased enrolments from overseas students.

Clearly, the Go8 universities preferred to enrol overseas students. In effect, the benefits of the allegedly superior education that these universities offer went to overseas students rather than to local students. This was not because overseas students had superior potential to take advantage of what the Go8 offers. The contrary is the case. The Go8 do not preference high performing overseas students. There are minimal entry barriers to their enrolment other than the ability to pay the huge fees required.

Australia’s universities, especially the Go8, are caught in a vicious circle as their reliance on overseas student revenue deepens. This reliance means that they cannot prioritise teaching which benefits the vocational needs of their domestic students, to expand enrolment opportunities for domestic students or to focus on research activities relevant to Australian industry or the well being of Australian citizens.

Report authors
Bob Birrell (mobile 0413 021 126) is the Head of the Australian Population Research Institute (TAPRI), an independent, non-profit research organisation. Katharine Betts is deputy head.
This paper is based on two TAPRI research reports:
Australia’s higher education overseas student industry revisited, December 2018  and Australia’s higher education overseas student industry: in a precarious state, November 2018.

Why do we have a ‘big Australia’?

Stephen Saunders

This post is based on the research paper, ‘Why do we have a big Australia’?

Pruning migration is low-hanging policy fruit compared with reducing greenhouse emissions.
Bill Shorten wrote to Scott Morrison recently proposing a “bipartisan approach” to population policy not the “politics of division”. In my jaded interpretation, he meant: Let’s not budge on Big Australia. Instead, let’s keep making unattainable promises on infrastructure and decentralisation.
Is Australia’s high population growth a logical fixture, endorsed by all, for the good of all? Tilting at these assumptions is the Australian Population Research Institute’s Report Why do we have a ‘big Australia’?, released last month.
I define big Australia as an inordinate appeal to high migration and high population growth, as headline and future economic tools, with larger regard for GDP growth and smaller regard for the environmental and social consequences.
Put that way, no such program could have emerged in the aftermath of World War II. The global ascent of GDP was in its infancy. Neoliberalism was decades away. Rather, defence and development guided Arthur Calwell’s pro-Briton “populate or perish” program. He wanted 2 per cent population growth; half would be natural increase, half immigration.
Higher population growth accompanied the 1950s boom in Australia. From the 1970s to the 1990s, net overseas migration dipped; it averaged less than 100,000 a year. Population only grew about 1 per cent a year. But GDP growth, though volatile, was commonly 3 to 5 per cent. It was a period of economic reform.
From 2000, however, John Howard decided to crank up immigration. By 2005, the mining boom was being used to justify this surge. Howard and then Opposition Leader Kim Beazley clicked as self-described “high-immigration men”.
In effect, the Gillard government’s A sustainable population strategy for Australia, released in 2011, rubber-stamped Howard’s policy shift. The official migration intake is now off its peak of 190,000. But net overseas migration is still running well over 200,000, a level never attained before 2007. Population growth is 1.5 per cent and more. That’s much higher than most rich OECD nations – or even India.

Above trend
This record population growth is largely removed from the party-political contest. But public opinion has shifted in recent years. Various polls (TAPRI, Essential, Newspoll, even this year’s Lowy) now find 54 per cent or much higher majorities that favour lowering immigration or population growth. A couple of polls still find for a (very substantial) minority instead.
If the will of the people was ever going to count, why not on the number of migrants? Or, should the people defer to those in the growth lobby, who are confident they know better?
And who is in the growth lobby anyway? Most of the influential interest groups you can think of – except the electorate.
The groupthink begins with the three main political parties. With varying emphases, all celebrate Big Australia for its “jobs and growth” and “multiculturalism” or rejection of racism. Professed public interest motivations also apply to academics and professionals, and to unions, social or religious organisations.
The vaunted multiculturalism has its own racial signatures. India and China have now overtaken Britain as our top migration nations, but significant constitutional and policy arrangements remain decidedly pro-British or pro-Christian. Politicians launch incendiaries against refugees and “African” or “Muslim” immigration, though all three groups are statistically small segments.
The European migrant cultures are more respected now, lionised even. For the original Indigenous Australians, however, respect is a sometime thing. There are the gains of land rights and native title. Against that are high incarceration rates, remote work-for-the-dole schemes and cashless welfare cards. The Indigenous consensus on constitutional recognition was rejected out of hand.
By default, the Treasury is our key population agency. To help perpetuate the 27-year “miracle” in GDP growth, it quietly limns each Budget with high net overseas migration and high population growth.The Reserve Bank, unlike the Productivity Commission, pushes the supposed demographic rejuvenation from high migration. Well over half of all migrants, and well over three-quarters of skilled migrants, go straight to Sydney or Melbourne. The RBA, however, suggests that “zoning restrictions” push up city house prices.

This post originally appeared as an article in The Canberra Times,
6 November 2018

Australia’s population ponzi scheme

By Stephen Williams

(Stephen Williams is a freelance journalist. He has done paid work for Sustainable Population Australia. This post first appeared in Independent Australia. )

Australia is running an ‘investment’ scam that relies on an ever-increasing number of punters to join in.

IF YOU ARE LOOKING for discord between policies that the major parties offer and what most people actually want, it is hard to beat population policy.

OK, OK – the major parties don’t actually have population policies – they have immigration policies that, as the Productivity Commission says in its 2016 Migrant intake into Australia report, work as de-facto population policies.

But let’s start with what most people actually want.

MacroBusiness’s Leith van Onselen has been relentless in his coverage of the population issue in the past few years, and he summarises the recent opinion surveys here.

Van Onselen misses the first Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) survey of 2015, which I spearheaded, although Adjunct Associate Professor Katharine Betts did most of the work. I also had a minor role in The Australian Population Research Institute survey of 2017 that built upon the 2015 SPA survey.

At the very least these surveys show a clear voter dissatisfaction with our high population trajectory as our major cities become crush-loaded.

Do we have ‘high’ population growth?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics releases a quarterly report that summarises our population numbers.

As you can see, Australia is increasing its population by almost 400,000 a year: natural increase is about 38 per cent of that and net overseas migration in about 62 per cent.

The increase is 1.6 per cent per year. To the non-statistician that might not sound like much, but it means we would double our population every 44 years at that rate of increase. We are now 25 million, so that would be 50 million in 2062.

To put that in context, the shit hit the fan in October 2009 when then Treasury head Ken Henry expressed concern over our projected population of 35 million people by 2050.

That led to prime minister Kevin Rudd’s baptism of fire when, like a boy scout enthusiastically collecting kindling at his first jamboree, he chortled his enthusiasm for a “big” Australia.

Yes, we could all get nice and cosy around Kev’s big bonfire and toast some marshmallows!

But the public backlash was fierce, with Julia Gillard eventually distinguishing herself from Rudd with the empty phrase ‘sustainable’ Australia rather than big Australia.

Back to reality, comparable countries to Australia have much lower population increases, and Japan even has a decrease.

The federal government largely determines our population numbers, both through spruiking pronatalism, as former treasurer Peter Costello did in 2004, or through adjusting net overseas migration, with former prime minister John Howard turbo-charging it in about 2006.

(Do not confuse our refugee intake with our overall migrant intake: the former tends to be between 3 and 5 per cent of the latter.)

Such high-population increases, mostly through net migration, then allowed successive governments to smugly say the Australian economy was the envy of the world, with a record-breaking run of ‘economic growth’.

Translation: GDP keeps increasing because you keep adding lots of new people.

Growth sounds good, doesn’t it. It is the opposite of death, decay or stagnation. But growth can also be a cancer, or a ‘population Ponzi’ scheme.

As I have argued elsewhere, there is good evidence that Australia has gone from economic growth up to the decade of the 1970s to uneconomic growth as the costs of expanding the economy become greater than the benefits.

Expanding the economy wouldn’t be so bad if it led to full employment in good jobs and equitable wealth distribution, with reasonable commute times in efficient public transport, but I could sell you a nice big harbour bridge if you believe we are heading in that direction.

Australian governments have conducted a number of inquiries that were largely, or partly, into our population numbers: the Menzies government’s Vernon report (1965); the National Population Inquiry (Borrie report, 1975); FitzGerald report (1988); Withers report (1992); Jones report (1994); Sobels report (2010); and the already-mentioned Productivity Commission report on migration (2016).

Space does not permit an analysis here, other than to say that governments generally ignore those reports that tend to highlight a lack of objective or scientific justification for ever-increasing high population increase in a country with Australia’s limited water resources; limited arable land; unpredictable climate; exposure to natural disasters; and sensitive biota with record extinction rates.

Indeed, the Australian Academy of Science has been concerned about our population numbers for decades, although you will rarely, if ever, hear population boosters mention this. As the academy said in 2010:

‘The Academy has consistently advocated that a large increase in Australia’s population should not take place without a full analysis of the consequences for the environment, in terms of land, water, sustainable agriculture, pressure on native flora and fauna, and social issues.’

People advocating business as usual – or even higher rates of population increase – almost never mention the natural environment, probably because they know next to nothing about it and its life-support systems.

On the other hand, people who express concern about our population trajectory often have scientific or environmental credentials, or are at least environmentally literate: contributors to the regular Fenner Conference for the Environment are good examples.

No, it is largely the business community, its think tanks and its big accounting firms that push for a big Australia, with the mainstream media being largely complicit in not challenging base assumptions that the growth agenda is built on. For instance:

  • What would be an ecologically sustainable population for Australia?
  • What would be an optimal population for Australia?
  • Does expanding the size of the economy always lead to increased wellbeing?
  • Who are the winners and losers from the current neoliberal growth strategy?
  • What are the costs and benefits of increasing our population and what weight should we give to these costs and benefits?
  • Why do many successful societies have relatively small populations?
  • What can Australia realistically do to help an overpopulated planet that is still expanding by 80 million people a year?

The population boosters trot out questionable arguments about the dire consequences of an increase in the proportion of older Australians; alleged skills gaps in the native workforce; and fatuous ideas to do with ‘dynamism’.

Meanwhile, we have almost 2 million people who want more work and can’t get it; full-time jobs are disappearing; wages have stagnated; private-sector debt has skyrocketed; and wealth has concentrated at the big end of town.

What sticks in my craw is the seeming capitulation of both the once-great environmental movement in Australia, and the progressive left in general, to the notion of demographic inevitability and neoliberal orthodoxy.

In fact we have a choice, if only we would exercise it.


Why voters are ignored on immigration

Katharine Betts
This article originally appeared in The Herald Sun, 10 May 2018

For more than 10 years Australia’s population has been growing fast, mainly through immigration, and most of the new arrivals have found their way into Sydney or Melbourne.

As these cities buckle under the weight of numbers voters are shifting from discontent to anger. They resent crush-loaded trains, jammed roads, clogged schools and hospitals, outrageously expensive housing, and an eroding natural environment.

Despite stressed infrastructure and growing evidence of voter resistance both Coalition and Labor maintain their bipartisan commitment to even more years of high migration.

In 2016 the Australian Election Study (AES) found that 42 per cent of voters wanted immigration to be reduced. By August 2017 The Australian Population Research Institute (TAPRI) found that 54 per cent wanted lower immigration (and at an April 2018 Essential poll this had risen to 64 per cent).

Why do political elites continue to ignore voters’ unhappiness?

One answer is that politicians ignore voters because they can. They believe that voters have nowhere else to go, except for minor parties such as Sustainable Australia or One Nation.

The 2016 AES Candidates study provides evidence for elite indifference. Sixty per cent of election candidates wanted even higher immigration, including 67 per cent of Labor candidates. (Labor candidates were much closer to Greens candidates and Greens voters than to their own supporters.) An elite indifference driven by special interests leaves voters sidelined.

But there is a second answer to the question of why voters are ignored. Taking their concerns seriously risks breaking a rule stronger than politeness. It risks courting immorality.

This makes the division of opinion between political elites and voters more comprehensible. It stems from elite origins in the growing class of university graduates, a class imbued with progressive values.

A clear majority of professionals working in the media want even higher immigration, as do 49 per cent of university academics and teachers. Politicians and professionals are drawn from a similar pool of graduates, many of whom embrace progressive values including enthusiasm for cosmopolitanism, globalism, diversity and social justice.

Within this world view scepticism about high migration easily equates to racism. For example, Greg Jericho writes in the Guardian Australia that ‘because there are many desperate to hate – [the subject of immigration] must be treated with extreme care by politicians and journalists’ (24/2/18).

If scepticism about immigration is fueled by racist hatred, voters asking for reductions should not be taken seriously; their pleas are nothing more than poorly sublimated racism.

Beliefs of this kind have been held in elevated circles for some time. Politicians and their close associates are aware of them, and many share them. An in-group culture remote from the average voter, attention from well-heeled lobbyists, and a co-dependent relationship with media elites all contribute to creating an insider class. On the immigration question they live in a world remote from that of most Australians.

The TAPRI survey confirms that many progressives think that immigration sceptics are in fact racist. It also found that 65 per cent of voters know that this belief is widely held and that nearly half are inhibited by it.

The survey also found that, while many graduates can be termed ‘guardians against racism’, many other graduates feel threatened. They fear the slur. Because of this they are reluctant to speak their minds. After all they were likely to be working with other graduates imbued with progressive beliefs, and may even value such people as friends. Saying openly that immigration is too high puts them at risk of public shaming as well as exclusion from social groups that they care about.

TAPRI’s findings and those of the AES show that voters who are not university graduates are much more concerned about high migration than are graduates. Those who are the most concerned are non-graduate business managers, closely followed by a broad group of technicians, tradespeople, machinery operators, drivers and labourers. These non-graduates are less likely to fear ostracism but are also less likely to be in positions of influence. They can however say what they think in anonymous surveys such as those run by the AES, TAPRI and Essential Research.

They can also make their dissatisfaction felt at the ballot box. This, of course, is provided that there is at least one mainstream party courageous enough to stand against progressive opinion and the vested interests of the business lobby.

Taking a strong stand against racism is a core principle of progressive identity. And rightly so. The problem lies in the ill-informed reflex that is too quick to equate any discontent with high migration to racism.

This reflex helps to silence critics. It also gives the business lobby a free pass to enjoy the benefits its narrow constituency gains from population growth. As property developers bank their profits they can claim to be on the side of virtue or, if that is too far a stretch, they can safely deplore any opponents as xenophobes.

Katharine Betts is deputy head of The Australian Population Research Institute and author of ‘Immigration and public opinion in Australia: how public concerns about high migration are suppressed’, released this week on tapri.org.au.

How do Australian voters view the level of immigration? TAPRI and Scanlon compared

Katharine Betts and Bob Birrell

Republished from John Menadue’s site, Pearls and Irritations

There has been growing controversy about Australia’s level of overseas immigration. In the year to March 2017 Australia’s population is estimated to have grown by a massive 389,100, some 231,000, or 60 per cent of which was due to net overseas migration. For the last few years around two thirds of the net growth in migrants have been locating in Sydney and Melbourne.

The consequences are becoming obvious and are being reflected in increased public concern about urban congestion and other quality of life issues.

But are these consequences resulting in increased opposition to high migration? In order to explore this issue The Australian Population Research Institute (TAPRI) commissioned a national online survey of Australian voters in August 2017 ( ‘Australian voters’ views on immigration policy’.)

The survey found that 74 per cent of voters thought that Australia does not need more people. Furthermore, 54 per cent wanted a reduction in the migrant intake. TAPRI also found that big majorities think that population growth is putting ‘a lot of pressure’ on hospitals, roads, affordable housing and jobs. Thus it seemed reasonable to conclude that these concerns were manifesting in concern about migration levels.

This conclusion has been challenged by the 2017 Mapping Social Cohesion report from the Scanlon Foundation, which surveyed Australians at about the same time as the TAPRI survey. Scanlon reports that only 37 per cent thought immigration levels should be reduced (up just three percentage points from 2016).

When interviewed by David Marr on these findings, the author of the report, Professor Andrew Markus, said: ‘On one level, we’re doing really well as a society… There are all these stories about overcrowding, public transport, housing and everything. That could have gone negative on immigration and so on, but it hasn’t’ .

Who is right? The answer is of major consequence for Australia’s political class. In Western Europe concern about immigration levels has manifested in anti-migration parties gaining 15-20 per cent of the total vote. Is Australia an outlier, immune to sentiment of this sort?

Australian political elites appear to believe that they have little to fear on this front. This is because their main source of information about public opinion on the issue has been the Scanlon Foundation.

For instance, Labor’s shadow Deputy Treasurer, Andrew Leigh, has recently asserted that Australian attitudes to migrants are warm and ‘becoming warmer over time’ (Choosing Openness). According to David Marr, ‘more than almost any people on earth, we are happy for migrants to come in big numbers’ (The White Queen ). Both sources draw these conclusions from successive Scanlon reports.

This remarkable outcome, at least by comparison with the anti-immigration protests across Europe, has prompted a special report in The Economist magazine. The report notes recent efforts, as by Dick Smith, to sound the alarm about Australian migration levels. Yet, so the magazine judges, relatively few Australians seem to be concerned. The authors’ main source, once again, is the Scanlon Foundation. The Economist states that:

Regular surveys conducted by the Scanlon Foundation, which works to integrate immigrants, show that the sense that immigration is too high has fallen substantially since the 1990s.

Why the difference in results?

The TAPRI survey was completed online by a random sample of 2057 voters, (with quotas set with a 10% leeway, in line with ABS distributions for age, gender and location). The sample was drawn from a panel of 300,000. Thus TAPRI used the same methodology as is now employed by Newspoll and by Essential Media.

It is true that, despite the demographic weighting, the panels in question may not be representative of the overall population of voters. For example, the TAPRI sample had a higher representation of graduates than that of the voting population as a whole. This means it probably underestimated the opposition to migration since we found that only 41 per cent of the graduates amongst our respondents favoured a reduction in migration levels, compared with 61 per cent of non-graduates.

However, there are at least as many problems with probability samples done by telephone. The Scanlon poll was based on a telephone sample of 1,500 Australian residents drawn from the entire population of residents. It therefore included many respondents who are not citizens and therefore not eligible to vote.

Citizenship requires a four-year stay in Australia, at least one year of which must be as a permanent resident and, of course, the desire to make the application. As the TAPRI survey conformed, Australian-born persons are much more likely to take a tough line on immigration numbers than are overseas-born persons (unless they are UK-born).

There are also significant issues concerning the reliability of telephone interviews when probing  sensitive issues. As the highly credible Pew Research polling organisation has indicated, respondents may be more likely to provide socially undesirable responses in the relative anonymity of the internet.

Research by Scanlon supports this point. The 2017 report got quite different answers to the question ‘Is your personal attitude positive, negative or neutral towards Muslims?’ when the question was asked in its telephone survey and when asked in a separate online survey that Scanlon funded. In the telephone survey 25 per cent said ‘negative or very negative’, while 41 per cent responded this way in the online survey .

Similarly, Scanlon found a much larger share of respondents favoured a reduction in immigration numbers in a different online survey that it funded which used methodology similar to that used by TAPRI. In the telephone survey 37 per cent said that immigration was too high.  In contrast, 50 per cent of this online sample agreed that the immigration intake was too high, rising to 53 per cent when the findings were limited to those who were Australian citizens.

This result is almost identical to the TAPRI finding. It may well be that because attitudes to immigration numbers, like attitudes to Muslims, are sensitive, voters responding online feel freer to express negative opinions.

If TAPRI’s and Scanlon’s findings when using panel methodology are reliable they have great political significance. The TAPRI report found that 57 per cent of Liberal voters and 46 per cent of Labor voters thought that the immigration intake should be reduced.

If the immigration issue were to be contested at the next federal election both parties would be vulnerable. One Nation or any other party with a fierce low-migration agenda could draw voters from both the Liberal and Labor parties. Alternatively, should the Liberal party stake out a low migration agenda, it could draw votes from the Labor Party.

Katharine Betts and Bob Birrell are with the Australian Population Research Institute, a non-profit think tank.

Australian voters’ views on immigration policy

Katharine Betts and Bob Birrell,  26 October 2017
Australia’s population grew by a massive 384,000 in the year to March 2017, some 217,000, or 60 per cent, of which was due to net overseas migration.

Immigration is the dynamic factor in this population surge, reflecting a record high permanent migration program and generous settings for temporary-entry visas.

The consequences are becoming obvious and are being reflected in increased public concern about quality of life and questions concerning ethnic diversity.

The Australian Population Research Institute (TAPRI) commissioned a national survey of Australian voters in August 2017 to assess the extent of this concern and its causes.

The survey found that 74 per cent of voters thought that Australia does not need more people, with big majorities believing that that population growth was putting ‘a lot of pressure’ on hospitals, roads, affordable housing and jobs.

Most voters were also worried about the consequences of growing ethnic diversity. Forty-eight per cent supported a partial ban on Muslim immigration to Australia, with only 25 per cent in opposition to such a ban.

Despite these demographic pressures and discontents, Australia’s political and economic elites are disdainful of them and have ignored them. They see high immigration as part of their commitment to the globalisation of Australia’s economy and society and thus it is not to be questioned.

Elites elsewhere in the developed world hold similar values, but have had to retreat because of public opposition. Across Europe 15 to 20 per cent of voters currently support anti-immigration political parties.

Our review of elite opinion in Australia shows that here they think they can ignore public concerns. This is because their main source of information about public opinion on the issue, the Scanlon Foundation, has consistently reported that most Australians support their immigration and cultural diversity policies.

How could Australia be so different from other Western countries? It has long been argued, including by the Scanlon Foundation, that Australians were insulated from the economic shocks of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008-2009. This means that we have a lower share of angry ‘left behinds’ than in Europe and the US, that is, people suffering from economic stress who can be mobilised around an anti-immigration banner.

This is why Labor’s shadow Deputy Treasurer, Andrew Leigh, can assert that Australian attitudes to migrants are warm and ‘becoming warmer over time’ and that ‘there is solid support for the principle of non-discrimination’. It is also why, according to prominent writer David Marr, ‘more than almost any people on earth, we are happy for migrants to come in big numbers’.

The TAPRI survey refutes these findings. It shows that 74 per cent of voters believe that Australia does not need more people and that, at the time of the survey, 54 per cent wanted a reduction in the migrant intake. This includes 57 per cent of Liberal voters and 46 per cent of Labor voters. This result is far higher than the 34 per cent of respondents wanting a lower migrant intake reported in the last Scanlon survey (in July-August 2016).

Australian voters’ concern about immigration levels and ethnic diversity does not derive from economic adversity. Rather it stems from the increasingly obvious impact of population growth on their quality of life and the rapid change in Australia’s ethnic and religious make-up.

Such is the extent of these concerns that they could readily be mobilised in an electoral context by One Nation or any other party with a similar agenda, should such a party be able to mount a national campaign. If this occurs, the Liberal Party is likely to be the main loser.

The full text of the report is here.

Victoria: Parasite State

Victoria: Parasite State
Bob Birrell

Australia’s affluent lifestyle depends on huge imports of manufactured goods, particularly hi-tech electronic goods – for the simple reason that few of these products are made in Australia. In the official statistics these goods are labelled as Elaborately Transformed Manufactures (ETMs). In 2015-16 Australia exported $20.8 billion worth of ETMs and imported $190.3 billion. The resulting deficit was $169.5 billion.

This deficit was largely covered by the export of primary goods, mainly minerals and fuels. There was an Australia-wide surplus of $129 billion in 2015-16 in exports over imports of these primary goods. Victoria contributed a tiny $1.3 billion to this surplus in 2015-16.

At first sight, this is not a pretty picture. Victorians’ life style appears to be dependent on commodity exports, most of which originate from Western Australia and Queensland.

But surely Victoria makes a contribution to the export of ETMs? After all, Victoria has been in the lead in promoting advanced manufacturing and other innovative industries since the early 2000s, when Bracks and Brumby led successive Labor governments.

At that time, there were concerns about the consequences of the Hawke/Keating governments’ reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, which included drastic reduction in tariff levels. These opened Australian manufacturing industry to global competition. The fear was that Victoria’s legacy of protected manufacturing industries was at risk.

Bracks and Brumby embraced Keating’s reforms. Victorians were told not to worry about this risk. This was because Labor was putting in place initiatives that would promote hi-tech advanced manufacturing in Victoria. These initiatives, voters were told in 2002, would ‘make Victoria one of the world’s most innovative and international focused economies’.

Bracks and Brumby set out an Agenda for New Manufacturing. The Labor government promised to provide some financial support for innovation. But the trump card was its determination to turn Melbourne into an exciting destination city that would attract the best and the brightest from around the globe. Docklands and various iconic buildings like Southern Cross station were part of this. Labor claimed that these bright newcomers would enhance Melbourne’s already strong base in science and technology research.

The strategy included plans to boost Victoria’s population – labelled Beyond Five Million. The goal was to grow the states’ population from around 5 million in 2004 to 6 million in 2025. It actually reached 6 million in 2015, with Melbourne increasing its domination of the state’s population, despite the plan’s stated aim to decentralise Victoria’s population.

However the Labor leaders took no chances. Their new planning scheme, Melbourne 2030, provided for massive growth in Melbourne’s population by rezoning much of inner Melbourne and all of the city’s major transport and shopping hubs for high rise apartments. In addition, a huge swathe of Melbourne’s fringe was rezoned for new housing.

Labor’s initiatives were rewarded with the accolade of the world’s most liveable city in 2002. With so many ‘creative’ people expected to be attracted, the Labor leaders promised that Victoria would become ‘a world leader in the 21st century drivers of prosperity’.

Now let’s turn to the real world. How has Victoria performed since these promises were made? Victoria’s contribution to Australia’s meagre exports of ETMs has actually declined since the early 2000s. In 2004-05 Victorian enterprises exported $7.2 billion worth of ETMs. In 2015-16 they exported $7.3 billion. This is less in real terms than in 2004-05, because the Australian dollar was worth far more a decade ago than today.

There have been a few hi-tech success stories in Victoria, notably CSL, but these gains have been more than offset by the losses stemming from the demise of protected manufacturing industries, including the motor vehicle industry, which was the leading exporter of ETMs from Victoria in the early 2000s.

Meanwhile as Victoria’s population swelled and its residents’ affluence has grown, the state’s appetite for ETM imports has surged. As noted, some $7.3 billion of ETMs were exported from in 2015-16. In the same year, Victoria imported $52.5 billion worth of ETMS. The result was a deficit on international trade of ETMs of $45.2 billion.

And it’s getting worse. Victoria’s deficit on international trade in ETMs is deepening along with its growing population. Just a few years ago, in 2012-13, Victoria’s deficit on ETM trade was $34 billion.

Victoria is a parasite state. In 2015-16 Victorians, who made up 25 per cent of Australia’s population, were responsible for 28 per cent of the national deficit in ETM trade of $159.6 billion. Furthermore, as indicated, Victorian made only a tiny contribution to Australia’s surplus in the trade of primary products that largely finances the national ETM deficit.

Victoria is relying on the rest of Australia to provide for its import intensive life style. Melbourne, of course is driving this dependence because of its increasingly dominant role in the state’s economy.

In Melbourne, this dependence is ignored. Why worry when the economy appears to be booming. However the boom is being driven by employment growth in the health, social assistance and education industries that are largely financed by the commonwealth and state governments and a boom in the finance and property industries fuelled by a massive increase in mortgage investment debt.

The current Labor government is basking in Victoria’s national leadership in job creation, the continued award to Melbourne as the world’s most liveable city and the evidence of cranes on every horizon.

This is a mirage – where not a word of the truth, as summarized above, is allowed to intrude.

Bob Birrell is the head of the Australian Population Research Institute

An edited version of this text was published in The Herald Sun, on Monday the 28th of August 2017, page 20.
It was accompanied by an article by John Masanauskas, Bailed Out: Victoria dubbed a parasite state as imports trump exports by $51 billion a year and followed by an editorial, 29 August 2017, Livability clouds gather.

Migration policy: All about numbers

Bob Birrell and Bob Kinnaird

[This post was first published in the March 2017 newsletter of Sustainable Population Australia. It has been republished on John Menadue’s blog – Pearls and Irritations]

The permanent skilled migration program should be cut by nearly half, from 128,000 (primary and secondary applicants) to around 70,000. This includes migrants granted visas under the points test and those sponsored by employers.  

Our political leaders have prioritised growth in the migrant intake over other pressing concerns. These include the migrant contribution to city congestion and housing costs. You might think that our leaders would also be worried about the job competition for locals. Almost all proclaim their concern about jobs for Australians. Yet they are mute about the obvious clash between current immigration policy settings and Australian jobs.

This article summarises our research on the seriousness of this clash and how migration advocates manage to avoid critical scrutiny. Our focus here is on the permanent entry program rather than on the 457 program – detailed in the published report.[i]

The ABS estimates that Australia’s total population growth (some 340,000 a year) is adding around 280,000 a year to the civilian population aged 15 plus. If past work force participation rates continue, 65 per cent (or some 180,000) of this additional population will enter the labour market.

Yet in the year to November 2016, the growth in the number employed in Australia fell to just 87,000. Other signs confirming a weakening labour market are that almost all of the growth of employment in the last few years has been in part-time work and that there has been no growth in the total number of hours worked by those employed.

This is hardly a time to be running a record high permanent entry migration program of around 205,000, or to be encouraging the intake and prolonged stay of those holding temporary visas with generous work rights. These include students, Working Holiday Makers and temporary workers on 457 visas. An egregious example is the rule allowing overseas students to apply for tourist visas when their student visa expires. 35,877 were granted such visas in 2015-16. Does the government really think that many of these former students, with expenses to cover, will not work illegally?

The total stock of these temporaries has risen to around 1.3 million, excluding New Zealanders. They are providing ferocious competition for young job seekers. That is why the unemployment rate for persons aged 15-24 has reached 13 per cent and why increasing numbers are forced into internships and other forms of unpaid work.

Yet there is little sign from leading politicians and commentators of any rethink on the migration policies contributing these outcomes.

Why is this? The answer may be obvious to SPA members. Population growth is seen by the government and business interests as boosting the economy at a time when expenditure on resource industry investment has fallen from around 8 per cent of GDP in 2012 to around 4 per cent in 2016. The views of the current Governor of the Reserve Bank, Philip Lowe are typical. He has declared that population growth is the key to offsetting Australia’s current difficult economic setting. He argues that if Australia continues with the fastest rate of population growth amongst OECD countries this will drive Australia’s economic growth since migrants ‘will require somewhere to live, to work and to play’.[ii]

How do our political leaders get away with it? It is partly because they have created a smokescreen of (false) claims that the ‘skilled’ permanent and temporary entry programs only recruit highly skilled persons in short supply in Australia. On this basis, they assert that these recruits do not worsen local job opportunity. Our recent research, summarised below, refutes these claims.

The skilled migration smokescreen

The permanent resident skilled program

This is currently set at 128,000 (primary applicants and dependents). About two thirds are selected via the points-tested visa subclasses and the rest mainly via employer sponsorship. The Australian points-test and its alleged success in recruiting highly skilled migrants is regularly touted as a model for European nations to emulate as they struggle to manage their migrant influx.

These claims are taken seriously because of one key feature. This is that eligibility for the points tested visa subclasses is limited to those in occupations listed on the Skilled Occupation List (SOL). This list was introduced in 2010 at a time when the previous selection system was in disarray because of the huge number of cooks and hairdressers being visaed. The 2010 SOL was limited to managerial, professional or trade level occupations judged to be in overall national shortage. Cooks and hairdressers were not included.

On the face of it, this policy remains intact. The Australian government conducts an annual review of the SOL, where the public is invited to submit their views about whether particular occupations should be on the SOL or not. But this is a façade.

The growing evidence of oversupply in major professions like accounting and engineering has had little impact on the SOL. For example, the Department of Employment has recently recommended that accountants be removed. The Department of Health did the same for general practitioners (and some other health professions, including dentists) in the course of the 2015-16 review of the SOL.[iii] This advice was rejected.

The government has justified this stance by changing the criteria for judging when an occupation is in oversupply. SOL listing is now determined not by the current state of the Australian labour market, but by the government’s expectations about the medium to long term demand for skilled workers in the relevant occupations.

The Coalition Government makes no bones about its position. Its advice to those putting submissions on the 2016-17 SOL is that the SOL is concerned only:

With ‘medium to long term’ skills needs rather than immediate skills shortages. As such, the Department of Education and Training is only seeking information on longer term trends rather than immediate shortages and costs. ‘Medium to long term’ means 2-10 years.[iv]

No matter what is said in the annual review of the SOL about oversupply problems in particular occupations right now, the government can (and usually does) claim that when ‘normal’ rates of economic growth and job demand return, additional skilled migrants will be needed. This policy stance hides the government’s main priority, which is achieving its skilled migration numerical target. This would be gutted if currently oversupplied occupations like accounting, engineering and ICT were removed from the SOL. This is because they comprise nearly half of all the migrants granted visas after passing the points test.

So much for the claim that the program complements the domestic workforce. What about the boast that the migrants recruited are highly skilled?

Nearly two-thirds of those visaed under the points-tested visa subclasses were offshore applicants. All they have to do to meet the skills criteria of the test is attest that they have experience in their nominated occupation (usually at least eight years) and that they possesses degree level qualifications (from any of a vast number of educational institutions across the globe with greatly differing standards). There is no assessment at all as to whether they are ‘highly skilled’ or that their work experience is even relevant to employer needs in Australia.

For applicants applying in Australia, success is guaranteed if they hold bachelor level qualifications from an Australian university in any of the occupations listed on the SOL (like ICT or accounting), are aged less than 33 and have reached ‘Proficient’ level English (level 7 on the IELTS test). No job experience in their occupation is required. When these former overseas students enter the Australian job market, they add to an already oversupplied graduate labour market that puts a premium on experience and face the same problem as local graduates.

The employer sponsored permanent skilled program

In contrast to the points-tested category, the government claims employer sponsored permanent visas do ‘fill (current) skills shortages in the Australian labour market’.

But this claim is also mostly a facade. There is no genuine and rigorous testing of the Australian labour market to establish that no Australian workers are available at going market rates. The main ‘test’ is simply that the sponsoring employer says there is a shortage of Australian workers. For some employer-sponsored visas in regional Australia, the State government department responsible for regional development assesses whether Australian workers are available ‘locally’ (not nationally). These agencies usually have regional population growth as part of their charter.

Employer-sponsored permanent migrants may be less skilled than the points-tested skilled migrant group as lower skill levels and lower English language requirements apply. In 2015-16, only 26 per cent of employer-sponsored permanent migrants had occupations listed on the SOL.

The permanent skilled program could easily be cut in half by removing occupations like ICT, accounting, engineering, GPs and specialist doctors currently oversupplied from the SOL and by restricting employer-sponsored migrants to occupations on the SOL combined with rigorous labour market testing.

Dr Bob Birrell is President and Bob Kinnaird is a Research Associate, of the Australian Population Research Institute.

[i] Bob Birrell, Ernest Healy and Bob Kinnaird, Immigration Overflow: Why is Matters, The Australian Population Research Institute, December 2016

[ii] Phillip Lowe, 2014, Building on Strong Foundations, Address to the Australian Business Economists Annual Dinner, Reserve Bank, 25 November, p. 5

[iii] On the issue of GPs, see Mike Moynihan and Bob Birrell, December 2016, Doctor Oversupply-Ignoring the evidence, The Australian Population Research Institute.

[iv] <https://submissions.education.gov.au/forms/archive/2015_16_sol/documents/CPA%20Australia.pdf>


GP Oversupply and Medical Migration

By Bob Birrell, republished from John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations   13 January 2017

There are many indicators of GP over-supply in Australia.  … One consequence has been an escalation in the cost of GP rebates to the taxpayer. … Better distribution of GP services could be achieved by restricting new provider numbers to under-supplied districts.  

There are many indicators of GP oversupply in Australia. Over the decade to 2014-15 the number of GPs accessing primary care rebates on Medicare increased by 47.4 per cent. Over the same period Australia’s population increased by 18.7 per cent. The result was a sharp increase in the per capita number of GP services billed, from 4.7 in 2004-05 to 5.7 in 2014-15. The increase in per capita service provision was even stronger in Australia’s metropolitan areas, where GPs have been concentrating and the oversupply is most acute. Australia is close to the top in the ratio of working doctors to population within OECD nations.

GPs practicing in oversupplied locations have to chase patients. This has encouraged high throughput medicine, in which doctors prescribe multiple tests and recommend repeat patient visits. Patients, for the most part, accept this because they do not pay the costs. Currently 85 per cent of all GP services are bulk-billed. High throughput medicine depends on bulk-billing. Any GP that charges a co-payment in an oversupplied area will quickly lose patients.

One consequence has been an escalation of the cost of GP rebates to the taxpayer, from $3.3 billion in 2004-05 to $6.8 billion in 2014-15 and $7.2 billion in 2015-16. The costs for Pharmaceutical Benefits and screening tests have jumped as well.

These costs will continue to rise because of the increase in the number of domestic medical school graduates, from 1,320 in 2005 to 3,055 in 2015. The number of these graduates taking up GP training places has grown from 450 in 2004 to 1,529 in 2015. Once these Australian Trained Doctors (ATDs) obtain their GP Fellowship they can practice where they wish. Despite a raft of incentives to serve in undersupplied areas the great majority are choosing to practice in metropolitan areas.

Large numbers of Overseas Trained Doctors (OTDs) are adding to the metropolitan supply. This arises as follows. Since the early 2000s successive Australian governments have dealt with shortages of GPs in regional areas by facilitating the recruitment of OTDs on 457 visas. These 457 visas are only issued for specific jobs in GP practices and hospitals in locations defined as Districts of Workforce Shortage (DWS). Thousands of such visas are issued each year, including 2,320 in 2015-16. An indication of the scale of this recruitment is that it is more than the 1,529 GP training places allocated in 2015.

After serving a prescribed period in a DWS (from 5-10 years depending on remoteness of location) OTDs can bill on Medicare where they please (just like ATDs). Most move to metropolitan areas or to major regional centres. This movement is the main contributor to the rapid growth in the number of GPs billing on Medicare in metropolitan areas.

Given current medical migration policy this metropolitan flow will continue, because the government is allowing employers in DWS to sponsor replacements for the OTDs who leave. They are doing so in large numbers, as is indicated by the 2,320 457 visas issued in 2015-16. In time, many of these OTDs will move to metropolitan areas, where they will compete for patients with the impending surge of ATDs described above.

The Department of Health takes a stand

In 2016 the Department of Health (DoH) admitted the seriousness of the oversupply situation and announced some radical proposals affecting the recruitment and location of GPs. This arose in the context of the 2016-17 review of the Skilled Occupation List (SOL). The DoH recommended that GPs (and most specialists) be taken off the SOL. The significance of SOL listing is that migrants seeking permanent entry visas under the points-tested visa subclasses must have an occupation that is included on the SOL. The SOL does not affect eligibility for a 457 visa since almost all professional, managerial and trade occupations are open for sponsorship.

However DoH accompanied its SOL recommendations with a statement that it intended to reduce medical migration and to ensure that newly minted ATDs fill the resulting vacancies in underserviced areas. DoH can stop OTD recruitment on 457 visas by abolishing the DWS arrangements. At present OTDs can only be sponsored for a 457 visa if their employer specifies a GP position in a DWS.

The Coalition Government rejected this advice. It did so for two reasons. The first was that it does not want to remove major occupations from those eligible for its points-tested visa subclasses. To do so would gut the migration program, an outcome the government will not countenance. To this end the government has changed the criteria determining listing on the SOL. It has stipulated that the current state of the labour market in particular occupations is no longer relevant. All that now matters is the ‘medium to long term’ skill needs for the occupations under review.

To illustrate, the Department of Employment and Training’s recent surveys show clear evidence of excess numbers of applicants to job vacancies for accountants, ICT professionals and engineers. Yet each of these occupations remain on the SOL. All the occupations listed, as well as doctors, remain on the SOL because according to the government’s judgement of the medium term outlook, there will be a need for additional professionals in each field.

Our investigation indicates that these judgements are being made on the basis of outdated employment projections prepared during the resources boom era. The DoH recommendations for doctors were particularly interesting in this context because they challenged these projections (even if to no avail).

The second reason for the government’s reluctance to accept the DoH advice was fear about the likely reaction of organised medicine. If medical immigration ceased and ATDs entering the workforce were required to fill the resulting vacancies, this would abrogate the longstanding right of ATDs to practice where they wish. The policy would be labelled as conscription.

This is not the case. GPs are public servants, as the 85 per cent bulk-billing rate indicates. Public servants, such as teachers, can choose to work wherever there are vacancies. Likewise for GPs. Under the reforms implied by the DoH, GPs who finish their training would be free to work in any of the many locations — mainly in regional Australia, but also in after-hours service in metropolitan areas — where their services are needed. This could easily be accomplished by restricting new provider numbers to undersupplied districts.

This article is drawn from Mike Moynihan and Bob Birrell, GP Oversupply – Ignoring the Evidence, The Australian Population Research Institute, December 2016.

Bob Birrell is head of The Australian Population Research Institute. 

Disability and age: from 1998 to 2015

By Katharine Betts

Republished from YourLifeChoices 30 June 2016

We’re so used to hearing that an ageing population is the biggest threat facing our economy, but as sociologist Katharine Betts reveals, the figures don’t quite support this claim.

Since the late 60s large families have become less common, and at the same time, life expectancy has continued its steady rise. For many of us this feels like an improvement –parents no longer have to face numerous unplanned pregnancies and most of us can look forward to our 80th birthday and beyond. But these two changes also mean that the average age of the population has risen and will continue to rise for a few more decades.

For some people, however, this does not look like a good thing. In March 2015 a journalist charted the life of newborn baby girl, writing that she would ‘experience life as a youthful minority in an Australia bursting with ailing boomers’. And, by the time the child was middle aged, ‘there’ll be a generation of geriatrics to support’.[1] Another writes of ‘bedridden hordes of the elderly, dwindling numbers of able-bodied workers, and deeply indebted governments scratching for tax revenues to pay for rising health costs, pensions and aged-care costs’.[2] Other comments like these are not hard to find.[3]

But is the situation really so bad?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has been conducting surveys of the numbers of people suffering from disability for over 30 years. They show the percentage of Australians with disabilities grouped by age and sex, and by how serious the problem might be.

The first two were in the 1980s: 1981 and 1988. They show a discouraging tendency for the rate of disability to rise over the seven intervening years. In 1981, 51 per cent of Australians aged 85 and over were found to be ‘severely handicapped’ and in 1988 the proportion had risen to 62 per cent.[4] People were described as severely handicapped if they needed help with one or more of three core activities: self care (showering, dressing, eating and so on), mobility (moving around inside or outside the home), and verbal communication.

By the late 1990s the terminology had changed from handicap to disability, and the definitions of serious disability now included two separate categories: profoundly disabled (always needing assistance with one of the three core activities) and severely disabled (sometimes needing assistance with a core activity).[5]

There have been five comparable surveys from 1998 to 2015. And the pattern they provide gives cause for optimism.

Figure 1 shows that rates of profound or severe disability for people aged 65 and over have been falling over this 17-year period. In the case of those aged 85 and over the rate fell from 65 per cent to 49 per cent.

Source: Disability, Ageing and Carers, ABS, 4430.0 (various issues)

The 1998 data doesn’t distinguish between people aged 85-89 and those aged 90 and over. But from 2003 on we can see the difference between the older old and the younger old more clearly.

Source: Disability, Ageing and Carers, ABS, 4430.0 2015, April 2016[6]

Figure 2 shows that between 2003 and 2015 profound and severe disability rates for people aged 90 and over fell from 74 per cent to 63 per cent, while rates for people aged 85 to 89 fell from 51 per cent to 42 per cent. Similar to Figure 1, it also shows that rates were lower for people under the age of 85. But in Figure 2 it’s also clear that, in all cases, these rates have also fallen since 2003.

Disability is not confined to older people. There are profoundly and severely disabled people in all age groups. In 2015 more than half of them (52 per cent) were under the age of 65. Indeed all babies and children, at least up to the age of five, need help with self care, mobility and communication. To get a full picture of how many Australians need such help, and how many carers we in fact need, we should add them in too.

But here we are focusing on older people.

Figure 3 shows the changes between 2013 and 2015 by both age and sex for the 65-and-over group.

Source: Disability, Ageing and Carers, ABS, 4430.0 2015, April 2016[7]

In all age-group categories the reported rates are higher for women than for men. In some cases this could be due to men being reluctant to report serious problems, but the gap is probably mostly due to the same factors that lead to men having lower life expectancy: more hazardous work, risk taking, reluctance to seek medical help, and hormonal factors that may weaken men’s immune systems8. Thus it is probable that health problems among men are more likely to end in an earlier death rather than prolonged disability. It’s also true that women have a higher risk of dementia, a risk that is independent of the fact that they live longer and so are exposed to this risk over a longer period9.

But the important finding is that, over the 12-year period, rates have gone down for all of the sub-groups. We are not only living longer, the portion of our lives when we might fear to be limited in what we can do is getting shorter. Life expectancy is going up, and healthy life expectancy is going up a bit faster.[8]

Why is this happening? Medical scientists and demographers have not yet got clear answers. But they can tell us the immediate causes. Coronary artery disease[9] and serious vision problems[10] are declining. Dementia — the disease that many of us fear most — is also in retreat. In 2013 a British study reported that over a 20-year period the prevalence of dementia among people aged 65 and over had fallen by 24 per cent.[11] And in early 2016 a US study reported that over the last thirty years (among people who had finished high school) the rate of dementia had declined by 44 per cent.[12]

We don’t yet know why these changes are occurring. Better health care explains part of the decline in heart disease and vision problems, but only part. Possibly a lifetime founded on a long period of education helps stave off dementia. When we know more we’ll be able to take steps to reduce age-related disability rates even further.

In the meantime the data on the changes themselves are clear. Increasing numbers of older Australians are, and will be, free of serious health problems and will be able to continue to make a positive contribution to society.

Yes, the ageing of the baby boomers means that we are going have more older people in Australia. The ranks of those aged 65 to 79 will increase over the next 15 years, but more of us will be healthy and able to keep on working in paid jobs, if that’s what we want to do and the jobs are there. Or we will keep on with the volunteer work, helping care for grandchildren and, with luck, doing many other interesting things that we didn’t have time for before.

Katharine Betts was joint-editor of the demographic journal People and Place from 1993 to 2010 and has written widely on demographic topics. She is currently adjunct associate professor of sociology at Swinburne and vice-president of the Australian Population Research Institute.

[1] G. Rushton, ‘Here’s to a long life for Frankie’, The Australian, 6 March 2015, p. 1, 8

[2] F. Anderson, ‘Future tense’, The Australian Financial Review, February 21 2015, p. 16

[3] K. Betts, ‘The ageing of the Australian population: triumph or disaster?’, Centre for Population and Urban Research, Monash University, 2014

[4] Calculated from data in Disabled and Aged Persons, Australia, 1988: Preliminary Results, Catalogue no. 4118.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, 1989, p. 2

[5] Disability, Ageing and Carers: Summary of Findings, Australia 1998, Catalogue no. 4430.0, ABS, Canberra, 1999, p. 4

[8] Healthy life expectancy in Australia: patterns and trends 1998 to 2012: Bulletin 126, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Canberra, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2014

[9] D. S. Jones and J. A. Greene, ‘Is Dementia in Decline? Historical Trends and Future Trajectories’, The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 374, no. 6, 2016, pp. 507-509

[10] M. Chernew, D. M. Cutler, K. Ghosh and M. B. Landrum, Understanding the improvement in disability free life expectancy in the U.S: Working Paper 22306, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016

[11] F. E. Matthews, A. Arthur, L. E. Barnes, J. Bond, C. Jagger, L. Robinson and C. Brayne, ‘A two-decade comparison of prevalence of dementia in individuals aged 65 years and older from three geographical areas of England: results of the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study I and II’, The Lancet, vol. 382, no. 2013, pp. 1405- 1412

[12] C. L. Satizabal, A. S. Beiser, V. Chouraki, G. Chêne, C. Dufouil and S. Seshadri, ‘Incidence of dementia over three decades in the Framingham Heart Study’, The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 374, no. 6, 2016, pp. 523-532