The cooking-immigration nexus.

Author:Birrell, Bob

There has been a meteoric rise in enrolments of overseas students in cooking courses in Australia from around 1019 in 2004 to 8242 in 2008. All are trained in full-time courses conducted mainly by private providers - rather than via the apprenticeship system as is the case for Australian-trained cooks. Most of the overseas students who have finished these courses have subsequently gained permanent residence as cooks. Cooking is now the second largest occupation, behind accounting, among those gaining permanent entry visas under the onshore former overseas student visa subcategories. This article examines the rules governing the training and subsequent visaing of these cooks. It concludes that there are serious gaps in the rules governing their training and the assessment of their competency. In large part because of these deficiencies, only a minority obtain employment in Australia as trade level cooks.


This is the second time we have reported on the links between overseas student enrolment in cooking courses and the migration process. The first report 'Cooks galore and hairdressers aplenty' was published in March 2007. (1) That report showed that the number of permanent resident visas issued to cooks, pastrycooks and bakers (henceforth referred to as cooks) was rapidly expanding, and that most were former overseas students who had taken cooking courses in Australia. Our interest was stimulated by a raft of anecdotal evidence that an explosion in enrolments in cooking and hairdressing courses was occurring and that this was being fuelled by a bourgeoning industry of migration agents and private education providers. The overseas students were prepared to pay for this instruction, so it was alleged, because it led to a permanent residence (PR) visa.

Our analysis in 2007 confirmed this anecdotal picture. It also projected that there would be a sharp increase in the number of visas issued to migrants with cooking and hairdressing qualifications if the immigration rules were not changed. The implication was that Australia's migration program was being driven by the migration industry. This would have mattered less if the cooks and hairdressers being visaed had achieved skills equivalent to Australian trade standards (that is, equivalent to those of domestic apprentices on completion of their indentures). Our conclusion was that this was probably not the case, because the overseas students in question were receiving their training via an institutional pathway involving full-time training conducted by a provider. This could be a Technical and Further Education (TAFE), or more often, a private provider, whose business was dependent on student fees for its income. Our review of training standards offered by these private providers indicated a widespread view that the training outcomes varied, often falling well short of those expected of Australian trainees who had completed a cooking indenture. (2)

It was not possible to be certain about this skill judgement. This was because Trades Recognition Australia (TRA), the agency delegated by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) to determine whether applicants for PR who held trade qualifications had actually achieved trade standards, was not empowered to conduct any independent competency testing of applicants, whether of cooks or of any other trade.

The present report examines the response of the various regulatory authorities responsible for the training and assessment of cooks for migration purposes in the light of the recent public debate on the issue. The focus is on cooks, because of the sharply increasing scale of the intake of onshore migrants claming this qualification.


The prediction in the 2007 paper that enrolments in cooking courses would increase, as would the subsequent flow on to PR visas, has proved to be correct. ` shows the number of enrolments in cookery (and pastrycooking and baking) on the part of overseas students over the years 2004 to 2008. These increased eightfold from 1,019 in 2004 to 8,242 in 2008. These statistics are drawn from unpublished Australian Education International (AEI) statistics. Some background is required to interpret them. (3)

Overseas students who enrol in cookery do so in two stages. In their first year they complete units in the various cooking skills that the relevant Skills Council specifies that they should possess on completion of the course. These skills are described in the Training Package prepared for each skill by the Skills Council. The skills are intended to match those achieved by an apprentice cook who has completed his/her apprenticeship. Most providers teach this training package in a year. The enrolments in cookery detailed in Table 1 were for overseas students enrolled in courses designated as Certificate III or diploma level in the cookery, baking and pastrycooking fields of education. Students cannot apply for PR after completing ths one year of training, despite the expectation that they have achieved trade standard skills during this year. This is because DIAC has specified that applicants for PR who are educated in Australia must complete a minimum of two years of instruction before they apply. In the case of cooks, most do an advanced diploma in hospitality after their first year of training in cookery. This advanced diploma does not cover specific cooking skills. These second year course enrolments are not included in Table 1.

Table 1: Overseas student enrolments in cooking and visas issued to these former overseas students, 2004 to 2008 Enrolments Visas issued 2004 1019 2005-06 951 2005 1716 2006-07 1797 2006 3421 2007-08 3251 2007 5454 2008-09 not available 2008 8242 Source: enrolments, AEI, unpublished; Visas issued, DIAC, unpublished. The enrolment figures in Table 1 are conservative. There has also been a surge of overseas student enrolments in hospitality management at the diploma and advanced diploma level. It is likely that many of these courses include instruction in the certificate III cooking training package. Unfortunately, it is not possible to identify these enrollees from the AEI database.

The figures in Table 1 indicate that, at least until 2007-08, most of those who complete their two years training have successfully applied for PR as cooks, pastrycooks or bakers. This can be seen by matching the number of enrolments against the number of visas issued to cooks under the three onshore student skilled visa categories (subclasses 880, 881 and 882) in the migration program after the elapse of the second year of training. Since students are required to apply within six months of completing their two years of training, almost all would be visaed by the middle of the year following this training. For example, most of the 1019 students who completed their first year at the end of 2004 would have taken an advanced diploma in 2005, and have been eligible to apply for PR in 2005-06. These figures are consistent with the analysis in our first report, which was that almost all the overseas students taking cooking courses did so with the expectation that it would serve as a pathway to a permanent residence visa.

The scale of growth of visa numbers is indicated in Table 1. In just two years the number of visas issued to former students with cooking qualifications increased from 951 in 2005-06 to 3251 in 2007-08. By 2007-08 only accounting, with 6152 onshore visas issued exceeded cooks. The only other trade occupation with significant numbers was hairdressing with 492. (4)


Unfortunately there are no precise figures available as to the employment outcomes for former overseas students in cooking who gain PR. This is despite the huge numbers granted visas--nearly 6000 in the last three fiscal years (Table 1), as well as the concerns raised in our March 2007 article about their skill level and motivation to work as cooks. This prompted our call for DIAC to commission research on their employment experience after obtaining their PR visa. But to our knowledge, DIAC has not commissioned any research specifically into this issue.

Our recent inquiries indicate that their situation is still similar to that reported in 2007, which is quite different from that of Australians completing an apprenticeship in cooking. The latter are in demand, and can readily find positions as cooks. However, industry informants (representing employers of cooks and training providers) report that a high proportion of the overseas students who complete cooking courses and who actually want to be cooks tend to take on semi-skilled kitchen hand positions. This is because of the limitations of their training.

There are far more kitchen hands than there are cooking jobs. According to Australian Jobs, there were more than 109,000 kitchen hands in employment by November 2007 and their numbers grew by 12,200 in the five years to November 2007. (5) Thus, to the extent that former overseas cookery students enter the restaurant industry, they can find work at the semi-skilled level as kitchen hands. As explained below, cooking students are required by TRA to complete 900 hours of work in the industry, which most do in their second year of training. Many also work part-time in the industry on arrival in Australia. As a result they are playing an important role in filling semiskilled roles within the...

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