Universities fear 457 visa changes will harm ability to attract academic talent

Ben Doherty

Lack of pathway to citizenship will make Australia less appealing to the best researchers, Group of Eight says

Universities say their ability to attract the best researchers could be weakened by the 457 visa changes. Photograph: Elise Amendola/AP

Changes to the 457 visa program could derail Australia’s competitiveness for international academic talent, harm the lucrative international student market and set back already-stalled free-trade agreement negotiations with India in a series of “unintended consequences” of restricting skilled migration into the country.

The Group of Eight – Australia’s leading research universities – say their ability to attract the best researchers from across the globe could be weakened by restrictions on the professions open to skilled migration, and the lack of a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship.

“At face value the new technical arrangements for the temporary skills shortage visas and employer sponsored permanent skilled visas may make maintaining Australia’s international advantage more difficult,” said the Go8’s chair, Prof Peter Høj.

“More broadly, the mere suggestion of the government clamping down on academic mobility into Australia could deter potential academic recruits to Australia. This is particularly a concern at a time when there are opportunities for recruitment from the US and the UK and initiatives under way such as the recently announced Go8–India taskforce tasked with developing PhD and researcher mobility between Australia and India.”

Students who come to Australia to study, even higher degrees, will not be able to progress from a student visa to a skilled migration visa, and a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship, because of a requirement for two years’ work experience.

From March 2018, almost all student graduates will not be eligible for temporary and permanent company sponsorship as they will require at least two years’ full-time work experience first.

Australia’s international education industry is worth an estimated $21bn and supports 130,000 jobs.

Writing in the Lowy Interpreter, a researcher at the ANU’s Crawford school of public policy, Henry Sherrell, argued that the lack of a pathway to permanent residence would disadvantage Australia in attracting highly skilled workers.

“Removing the ability for many migrants to become permanent residents after spending a period of time in Australia will make it harder for employers and other organisations like universities to attract global talent,” he said.

“Both ‘chief executive’ and ‘university lecturer/research fellow’ will be restricted to the Short-term Skilled Occupation List. This means they are eligible for a two-year visa, able to be renewed once, but ineligible for the common permanent employer-sponsored visa, the Employer Nomination Scheme.

“Imagine being the chairperson of a Big Four bank or major law firm and not being able to offer potential chief executive officers a five-year contract due to visa restrictions? Innovation is difficult when universities are unable to hire the best people in the field, as higher education research is truly a global labour market.”

Sherrell told the Guardian Australia’s international competitiveness would be harmed because highly skilled, globally competitive occupations – such as chief executives and university lecturers – had been “misallocated” to the short-term rather than the long-term list.

“It’s not a lower-skilled list, it’s just short-term. If you’re a bank or a multinational company looking across the world for the best CEO to lead your business, you can’t sponsor them to come to Australia, you can only offer them two years.”

The changes to skilled migration into Australia were effectively reducing the status of some migrants from potential new citizens to “guest workers”, Sherrell said.

“There is a whole group of professions that have been knocked out of permanent sponsorship, and these people are effectively, now, guest workers on 457 visas. There has always been a pathway to permanency for these workers in Australia, but now, more and more barriers have been put up, and, in a lot of cases, the pathway to permanency and to citizenship is removed altogether.”

The Australian Medical Students’ Association said it was broadly supportive of the government’s new visa arrangements but was concerned that Australia’s 2,500 international medical students may be forced to take a gamble on their careers – by having to “race” their visa expiry into specialty training so they could stay in Australia.

Andreas Hendarto, a Singaporean student about to graduate from the University of Melbourne, said he wanted to start his working career in medicine in Australia but, given the competitiveness for specialty training, he may have to leave.

“I have spent the best part of eight years in this country and I look forward to spending many more,” he said. “But this new TSS scheme means that after many more years of working hard, I might still be forced to take my hard-earned experience and knowledge in Australian healthcare elsewhere – simply because I was here at the wrong time.”

Australia’s restrictions to 457 visas could also damage its broader relations with India, the largest source country of 457 visa migrants. More than 10,000 primary 457s were granted to Indians last year.

Indians also represent the second-largest cohort of international students studying in Australia, with more than 50,000 now enrolled in an Australian education institution.

An Indian external affairs ministry spokesman told the Times of India the Indian government was “examining consequences of the new policy in consultation with all stakeholders”.

But he warned it could impact Australia’s long-stalled free-trade agreement negotiations with the world’s largest democratic nation. “This is also a matter we will be looking at in the context of comprehensive economic cooperation agreement negotiations,” he said.

Malcolm Turnbull was in India last week trying to jump-start the sclerotic negotiations, which have dragged on nearly six years.

In Delhi, he sung the praises of Indian migration to Australia.

“Remember, there is half a million Australians of Indian background and it’s the largest single part of our migration program nowadays, so the Australia-India connection is very, very strong.

“It’s built not just on meetings between prime ministers but on thousands, if not millions, of connections between Australians and Indians.”