Post Graduate Visas: Controversy and Change

The Migration Institute of Australia’s Maurene Horder, outlines the challenges of the new postgraduate working visa for international students.

Over the past three years, the Australia Department of Immigration and Citizenship has dramatically and purposefully limited the types of former international students eligible for permanent residency.
 
It has also in the last few months begun to wind back some of those reforms, including a major recent change regarding post study work rights.
 
Because of the length of time tertiary education degrees take to complete, and because of the general lag between the passing of laws and their implementation, the effects of these changes are only just now being felt in the form of reduced international student enrolments, and a rising chorus of complaints from Australian universities and colleges.
 

The value of the international education sector was worth more than $17 billion in 2009 –
larger than any other non-mining export industry –
but had slipped to less than $15 billion in 2012, with further reductions projected over the coming years.

 
The government earlier this year introduced post study work rights for some international students designed to begin to slow that decrease in student numbers, but reaction to that change has been mixed.
 
Moreover, as economies in North America and Europe begin to rebound from the Global Financial Crisis and the Australian dollar remains historically high, it’s an open question whether international students will ever return to Australia in the record numbers of the late 2000s.
 

Reform or Ruin
 
In February 2010, the then Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator the Hon Chris Evans, cancelled at least 20,000 legitimate General Skilled Migration applications lodged offshore. The Minister was acting to abolish an uncapped visa program that guaranteed semi-skilled workers permanent residency in Australia using trade qualifications gained overseas – a system that many saw as open for abuse, and rife with loopholes and perverse incentives.
 
At the same time, he also removed semi-skilled job types from the list of occupations eligible for residency, decimating the private colleges industry in Australia.
 
Despite these major changes and a rapidly climbing exchange rate – to say nothing of angry response these actions attracted in Australia and overseas – international students already in Australia, particularly those from China and India, re-enrolled in local universities in record numbers. Those international students understood that, while another degree would be very expensive, it was also their one chance to regain their former pathway to residency.
 
As the GFC wreaked havoc on the world’s financial systems, Australia’s resilient economy meant that its colleges and universities also began attracting a new cohort of international students, including many from Southern Europe and Latin America, who wary of obtaining a degree in places like the United States, Canada and Great Britain, where jobs were being lost in huge numbers.
 
Putting lie to many commentators’ apocalyptic predictions, the university sector actually grew during this time, and played a major role in propping up Australia’s economy.
 

Breaking the “Nexus”
 
Buoyed by this success, and looking to finish the reform agenda it had started the previous year, DIAC published the Government’s response to the Knight Review which has included raising both the English language proficiency requirements and the amount of money in the bank that prospective international students are required to demonstrate, and moved to stop all but the most highly qualified of the nearly 500,000 international students in Australia from moving directly to residency.
 
Satisfied that it had now effectively severed the nexus between education and migration, and confronting a nervous higher education sector concerned that too many of their international education enrolments were re-enrolments of students already in Australia – rather than new, offshore customers – the Government in early 2013 looked to some of the Knight Review’s Stage 2 implementations.
 

Amongst these is the recommendation that students completing Bachelor or higher degrees should gain some sort of post study work rights to allow them to remain in the country working – in effect, making use of their education in Australia, rather than taking their skills back home.
 
For some critics, this change is too little, too late. But as Australia’s economic outlook remains relatively bright, with low unemployment and high rates of pay, there are former international students who view this change as a godsend.
 

Right to Work
 
From January 2013, former international students who have completed a higher degree in Australia can apply to stay and work on the new Temporary Graduate (Subclass 485) visa.
 
Bachelor, Master and Doctoral degree graduates who had been on student visas, including the popular Subclass 570 series visas are eligible to remain in Australia with full work rights following graduation for two, three and four years, respectively.
 
Initial excitement over this change has given way to cautious optimism and some confusion over how this program will work.
 
If effectively handled – which is never a guarantee when discussing Australia immigration – this new visa should create a structure that normalises the hiring of former students on temporary work visas and allow for more legitimate and successful migration outcomes for the most highly skilled and employable graduates.
 
Access to the Subclass 485 visa is not, universal, however, and its requirements can be extremely complex.
 
For instance, anyone who first applied for any Student visa before November 2011 is effectively ineligible for this new Subclass 485 visa – an unfair provision that the MIA, amongst other advocacy groups, is protesting.
There are additional loopholes and inconsistencies that are also being explored by DIAC and its major stakeholders, and this policy is likely to shift over time as a result of those explorations. 
 
 

Getting the Right Advice
Anyone looking to take advantage of this new program is encouraged to engage a Registered Migration Agents to provide advice on this fraught area of law.
 
To find a qualified professional in your area, visit: www.mia.org.au/search-agent.
 
*Maurene Horder is the Chief Executive Officer of the Migration Institute of Australia.

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