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A SERIOUS political headache looms for the next federal government over what to do with up to 200,000 international students. They have finished their courses but are allowed to stay in Australia a further 18 months. Both the Howard and Rudd administrations permitted the students to stay on to improve their English language skills or find a job in their chosen qualification, a pathway to permanent residency. But it has helped create a bubble in Australia's net overseas migration rate, which the Australian Bureau of Statistics yesterday confirmed hit the highest on record in 2008-09 at 298,900. Ballooning immigration was the main factor behind the rapid population increase in recent years and has been the catalyst for the "big Australia" population debate that dominated the first stage of the election campaign. Leading demographer Peter McDonald said the sudden growth in the net overseas migration rate was exacerbated by those arriving in Australia on temporary visas who haven't left. He said the build-up of overseas students still in Australia after their courses were complete was likely to be somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000, and any political move to send the students home would create a huge domestic labour force issue. "These people are all employed in Australia as taxi drivers, in bakeries, in aged-care facilities, in hospitality. If a future government decided it wasn't going to give them permanent residency, this would mean many would drop out of employment, creating huge labour shortages in the areas they are working," Professor McDonald said. "I think if there were Australian workers to fill those jobs, they would be doing it now." "On the other hand, if they are able to stay, they will take up most of the permanent resident places under the skilled migration program. In other words, the government will be in a position that it will have to choose. "While it would have been better if it hadn't happened at all, if I was the government, I would take the students that are already here as a one-off, but also still take the mining engineers and the nurses and other skilled migrants. "I'd increase the permanent intake for a short period until these temporary student visa holders washed through the system." Julia Gillard opened the election campaign with a warning that Australia should not "hurtle" toward a population of 36 or 40 million by 2050, but later claimed the issue was not about immigration. The Coalition has a policy for the net overseas migration to be capped at 170,000 a year. The ABS figures yesterday showed that "over the past three years, NOM has more than doubled from 146,800 persons in 2005-06 to (an estimated) 298,900 in 2008-09, the highest on record". It also noted significant shifts in interstate migration, with Queensland and Western Australia recording net growth. Queensland gained 12,500 people from NSW alone, which continued to record significant losses. Overseas students inflate migration bubble | The Australian