Migration ‘the elephant in the room’ in international education

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Australia’s Labor administration intends to “swing the pendulum back to permanent migration” in the debate over public policy, including international education policy, according to government backbencher Julian Hill.

But Mr Hill said any change to international education settings must not extend to residency guarantees.

“We need to remember the lessons from the 2000s,” said Mr Hill, in a reference to migration scams that prompted a crackdown on student visa regulation. “Permanent migration is such a powerful motivator. It distorts people’s behaviour and can cause corruption.

“We must stop short of re-establishing a hard link between a student visa and a permanent migration outcome. We can incentivise. We can tilt the playing field in skill-shortage areas. We can do things that are in our national interest but stop short of raising expectations to unreasonable levels.”

Mr Hill was executive director of international education in the Victorian state government before being elected to federal parliament, where he helped establish the Parliamentary Friends of International Education support group. With his party now in power, he has been appointed co-convener of the federal government’s Council for International Education.

He said Labor had arrived in office with a view that policy settings had “swung too far” against permanent migration. “We’ve perhaps lost focus in our public debate…about the enormous benefits that Australia has had over decades in being a permanent settler society. People can come here, put down roots, build a life, contribute to the country.”

Permanent migration was one of the “elephants in the room that, for whatever reason, haven’t been touched on and…we might want to look at”, he told the Australian International Education Conference on the Gold Coast.

But any changes would be driven first and foremost by the interests of Australia, he told Times Higher Education. “You have to take into account short- and long-term economic [and] societal impacts and think about what the overall balance of a good migration programme should be.”

Navitas marketing head Neil Fitzroy told the conference that education and migration had recently started “being uttered in the same sentence” in policy conversations, sending a “shudder” through practitioners long habituated to ruling out “any possible link”.

“To what extent is there a potential link between the two or not? That’s a key policy question which I don’t feel we yet have a clear direction on.”

Labor’s recent decision to extend post-study work rights has fuelled concerns about graduates being lured into immigration limbo as they linger in Australia for years in the vain hope of securing permanent residency.

Policy thinktank Committee for Sydney says the permanent residency pathways for international students are “complex and restrictive”. It says students should be offered a “clearer pathway to permanent residency” through a “permanent graduate visa” for those who maintain four years of post-study work and earn salaries above a certain threshold.

Mr Hill said the decision to increase work rights rather than migration pathways met the national interest. It boosted worker availability in “high-priority skill shortage” areas while easing employers’ reluctance to hire staff “who’ve only got a two-year visa”.

He said the government was mindful of impacts on “the stock of people with temporary work rights…but we’re not extending those visas to a greater number of students. We’re simply saying that for a select group who the country would like to retain – because it’s in our interest as Australians – we could add a couple of years.”


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