Australian resident number 25 million due next month
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Australian resident number 25 million due next month

In the early hours of a Wednesday next month Australia will pass a historic milestone.

The national population will hit 25 million about 4am on August 8, and at the current rate, there will be 40 million Australians by mid-century, demographer Mark McCrindle estimates.

When births, deaths and net overseas migration are taken into account Australia is now adding one extra person every 83 seconds. During the second half of the 20th century, it took around 4½ years to add a million people. The latest million will be added in record time – just under 2½ years.

The 25 millionth Australian is likely to be a female student from China - like Molly Li who is studying law at UNSW.

The 25 millionth Australian is likely to be a female student from China - like Molly Li who is studying law at UNSW.Credit:James Brickwood

Although we can't know for sure who Australian number 25 million will be, demographic trends suggest it is most likely to be a female student, migrating from China.

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This imaginary 25th million resident, based on current data, will be aged about 26, and move to western Sydney on a higher education visa, possibly business or management, Mr McCrindle said.

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Australia's reputation as a safe place to study drew Molly Li, 24, from China to study a masters degree in Law at UNSW after she decided it was not safe to live and study in the United States or Britain following several shootings and terrorist attacks last year.

"From the domestic [Chinese] media reports Australia is very safe and there are many lovely animals, also there are some top universities here," Ms Li said.

Higher education visas are the largest source of overseas migrants, with about half of them (almost 41,000) Chinese students.

"Education is our third biggest export industry after coal and iron ore, accounting for $31 billion to the economy," Mr McCrindle said. "It is paying for the hospitals and roads and infrastructure that we need, so the net overseas migration part of population growth is a net contributor to the economy."

Last year net overseas migration was Australia’s main population driver, accounting for 62 per cent of new residents. And about eight out of 10 of those new migrants settled in Sydney or Melbourne, joining two in every five Australians who live in these cities.

In the past 12 months – while Sydney grew by a record 100,000 people and Melbourne grew by more than 2 per cent (a record 125,000) - many regional cities like Mackay and Gladstone in Queensland, as well as Geraldton in Western Australia, and Lismore in NSW recorded fewer residents.

"We need to rebalance the population," McCrindle said. "We've got red-hot growth in some cities, population decline in other very established cities and we've got a city like Darwin that goes up and down with the economy.

"We need to modulate our population growth so it's sustainable, so it's plan-able, so that it's decentralised and not all about just the east coast capitals ... to grow our regional economies."

Record growth of 100,000 plus people annually will be the "new normal" in Sydney and Melbourne as they move towards 6 million inhabitants each by 2025, and 8 million in 2040, Mr McCrindle said.

"We think of ourselves as a small country but our largest cities are very large and growing very strongly," Mr McCrindle said. "We are growing, not only faster than a lot of the developing countries that normally have a faster growth rate. Our growth rate is way above China and other countries in Asia, we're also growing faster than most OECD nations."

UNSW City Futures Research Centre research fellow Dr Laurence Troy said Australia needs a population growth policy because increasing density with towers or opening new areas around Sydney to provide more land for houses both have environmental consequences.

"The current approach is just to let it [population growth] happen and that generally means it happens in Sydney and Melbourne," Dr Troy said. "It creates a lot of pressures and a lot of that is borne out via the urban development process because we need to find new houses.

"Congested cities are more polluted cities and at the same time if you keep pushing outwards it creates other environmental issues, like how we live [and move] in the city."

Professor of Sustainable Urban Environments at UTS Rob Roggema said the cultural backgrounds of people entering Australia bring extra qualities to the country.

"They [migrants] bring a new set of values to the country, for people who are living in Australia for a long time it might be confronting but it makes the country more attached to rest of the world," Professor Roggema said. "A lot of people see migrants as people taking their space but I think they enrich people's lives."

Interaction is vital because clustering migrants in some suburbs, while Australians keep their own culture to themselves, means they don't learn from each other and they become fearful because "we" don't know "them", Prof Roggema said.

Ms Li, her classmates and her Chinese friends have all experienced xenophobia since arriving.

"In Sydney sometimes I will be afraid of discrimination, although I don’t meet racists very often, I have met them on the street, and it's very uncomfortable," Ms Li said. "Maybe this is a reason for me that I don’t want to stay here after my graduation because I think this is not my country."

Chen Zhao, known as Dorothy, is studying journalism at UTS and said she plans to go back to China after finishing her undergraduate degree if she can find a good job there. But if she can't she will do a master's degree and then go back to China.

"My parents are in China, and my boyfriend also will go back to China when he finishes his course in Sydney," Ms Zhao said. "Therefore, my root is in China and I will not be an immigrant."

Safety was one of her main reasons to study in Australia but she too suffered racist abuse since arriving.

"I think most overseas students or immigrants from Asian countries have had to suffer discrimination. I think this is a very serious problem in Australia now," Ms Zhao said.

"My parents wanted me to see a different world, and expand the horizons. They want me to understand the different culture."