The Changing Face of our Professional Elite

Michael Duffy, Sydney Morning Herald, Nov. 12

The big change no one talks about is the growing success of people from Asian backgrounds in the professions. If present rates continue, they could form a majority of Australian professionals within a generation or two. Such an outcome would be unusual: perhaps the first time in history a nation’s elite has invited another group to come in and replace it.

Asians are the first significant group of immigrants to this country to come from, or at least aspire urgently to enter, the middle class. They are far more successful in education than other Australians. For instance, in the 2004 HSC, about 350 of the top 1000 students had Asian surnames. As people of Asian background comprise about 7 per cent of the population, this means they did five times better as a group than other Australians. This success has been going on for more than a decade: in 1993, for example, the figure was 330.

I don’t have figures for all pupils (there are almost no publicly available figures on any aspect of this subject) but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest this level of achievement is reflected in all HSC results and continues into university courses. An article in People and Place by Siew-ean Khoo and Bob Birrell looked at how many males aged 25 to 34 in 1996 had tertiary qualifications. For those with parents born in Australia it was 17.7 per cent, for China 48.8 per cent, and for India 31.3 per cent.

At university, many courses have well over 7 per cent Asian students. For example, one informed academic told me four years ago that about 50 per cent of entry level dentistry students and a quarter of medical students were from Asian backgrounds. The general pattern is that the numbers are highest in numerate subjects such as IT and accounting, and lower in courses such as law. Whatever the figures might be at the moment, they will increase, as more than 50 per cent of immigrants have come from Asia for many years now.

Many university students are full-fee foreign students, of whom there are more than 200,000. Between 30 and 40 per cent get visas on graduation. The Government has hardly increased the number of domestic university places since 1996, so these graduates are literally taking jobs that would once have gone to Australian citizens.

In 1998 foreign full-fee students comprised 34 per cent of all degree completions in IT and 32 per cent in the business/administration/economics field. Last year, 5267 visas were granted to foreign IT graduates at a time when 30 per cent of domestic graduates were having trouble finding work. Madness.

A recent report for CPA Australia said that in 2003-04, 47 per cent of all commencing students in accountancy came from overseas, mainly Asia. It also noted the estimate of IDP Australia (the universities-owned firm that sells Australian education abroad) that by 2025 there will be almost as many overseas students studying at Australian universities as there are local students today.

Does it matter if, say by 2030, people of Asian background make up 10 per cent of the general population but several times that of those in elite jobs? Opinions would vary if people were asked, but they’re not. The nation is making this big change without any public discussion.

What is certain, though, is that many young Australians have been excluded from university over the past decade, due to the failure to increase domestic university places in line with the growing population.

Perhaps the reason there has been no public discussion of these changes (apart from fear of being called racist) is that those who contribute most to public debate have not yet been seriously affected by them.

There are, after all, far less than 7 per cent Asian faces in Parliament, the media, and the humanities and social science faculties of our universities. And those of us in these circles who are parents are (relatively) smart and wealthy enough to help our kids get into university, with a bit of luck.

It is interesting that the Prime Minister, once a critic of the rate of Asian immigration, is now presiding over what amounts to the demographic reconstruction of this country’s elite, at the expense of the children of those once known as Howard’s battlers. Strange behaviour from a self-declared conservative.

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