Australia’s immigrants are defying stereotypes by going to college way more than locals

Migrants are graduating in Australia/
Migrants are graduating in Australia/
Image: Reuters/Jason Reed
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Australia is one of many countries that frequently accuses immigrants of failing to assimilate into mainstream culture. The right-leaning government of prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is trying to make it harder for people to enter the country and gain citizenship, proposing measures like testing for English proficiency and “Australian values,” whatever that means.

But while Australia’s citizenship minister complains that migrants live in “cultural bubbles” and don’t learn English, the people who are new to his country are proving him wrong. They are taking one of the fastest routes toward cultural assimilation and economic contribution: Going to university.

In fact, migrants and their children are getting university degrees at much higher rates than locals, according to an analysis by Andrew Norton of the Grattan Institute, a think tank based in Melbourne.

The data looks at rates of university participation among 18-20 year olds, grouped by the language they speak at home. This is a good proxy for populations of both first-generation migrants and their children. (Usually, by the third generation, migrant families no longer primarily speak the language of their ethnic ancestors.) Norton excluded Australia’s huge population of international students from the dataset, so the chart shows figures only for Australian citizens.

The results are striking. For the group of Aussies who speak English at home, the rate of university participation is very close to the national average at 33.4%. It is significantly higher, though, for nearly all groups who speak another language. That includes not just the stereotypical “model minority” groups from Asia, but speakers of Arabic and African languages as well.

To some degree, this could be interpreted as support for the Turnbull government’s approach to migration. Turnbull backers might say that Australia should only accept the best people from abroad—like families who prioritize going to university. But the vast discrepancy in that chart between English and other languages suggests that Australia is being too selective. Migrants contribute to local economies, and excluding them comes at a cost, especially given that the second generation is guaranteed to be fluent in English and Australian culture.

Australia and its fellow wealthy nations would therefore be likely to benefit from accepting more migrants, the better to boost levels of education throughout the country. The proposed English proficiency test would do the opposite.