Labo(u)r announces its own crackdown on international students

Tighter visa rules for international students and low-skilled workers have been announced in Australia, with the aim of halving net migration by 2025 - as the Labor government overhauls what it says is a "broken" system.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Isaac Levido, the political strategist who ran Boris Johnson’s 2019 election campaign in the UK and is masterminding Sunak’s pitch the country next year, was also behind Scott Morrison’s surprise win for the Liberal/National Coalition in the Australian election of 2019 – where immigration as a “wedge issue” was front and central.

It wasn’t a trick he could pull off for Morrison in 2022 – with Labor’s Anthony Albanese adopting a much more constructive tone over skills shortages, protecting local employment opportunities and working conditions and preventing the exploitation of international students and working holiday makers.

Nevertheless the figures post-pandemic have attracted much media and political attention. The government’s own figures suggest that net overseas migration will hit 510,000 in 2022-23 – with the increase largely driven by international students – and the blame for intense pressure on an already tight rental market being placed at the door of the increase.

A survey for the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper yesterday said 62 per cent of Australian voters said the country’s migration intake was too high.

Hence at the weekend Albanese promised that the numbers would return to a “sustainable level”, and overnight Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said that its new migration strategy would bring migration numbers “back to normal” – down to about 250,000 by 2025-26, which is roughly where the numbers were pre-COVID. She notably refused to rule out a cap on student numbers overall – but for now the plan is aimed at avoiding a cap.

The big idea on students is aimed at ensuring that those who come to study do not become “permanently temporary” by improving the quality of students’ educational experience in Australia and reducing potential workplace exploitation.

Earlier this year it shut down a loophole that allowed international students to switch to lower-quality education providers primarily to facilitate work in Australia, and raised the savings requirement for entry to about £13k (it’s still stuck on £9,207 for students outside of London in the UK).

It also put in place plans to regulate education agents by expanding the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority, aiming to restore integrity in international education and “support the sector’s quality and competitive advantage”.

In today’s announcement, a new “Genuine Student Test” is designed to incentivise genuine student applications and discourage those “whose primary intention is to work rather than study”. Two ministerial directions underpin the approach – one which will toughen up the interview process with a focus on academic and career internations and progression (with a new Department of Home Affairs’ “student visa integrity unit”), and another that will categorise applications based on the risk level associated with the education provider.

Notably, the aim of the test is to ensure that “the vast majority” of international students in Australia will return home after their studies.

English language requirements will increase from IELTs 5.5 to 6.0 (it varies between 5 and 6.5 in the UK), and the minimum temporary graduate visa score will move from to 6.5 from 6.0.

There’s no crackdown on dependants here – although a pandemic concession of uncapped hours of paid work has been abolished, with a 48 hours a fortnight limit in its place (the UK maintains 20 hours a week during term time.)

Meanwhile the post-study Graduate Visa will broadly come into line with the UK – with the offer for those with a taught Masters reducing down to 2 years from 3. Eligibility for a second temporary graduate visa will remain unchanged, but the current ability to extend by two years will be scrapped.

There’s nothing specifically new on agents, although work continues on making universities take responsibility for what they say and do where there’s a commission involved, and there’s a plan to plans to collaborate with education providers, unions, industry, and governments to do more on employability, with a commitment to deliver:

  • More work integrated learning opportunities, such as professional workplace placements or industry-partnered projects.
  • Removing barriers to undertaking apprenticeships on a student visa.
  • Reforms to the vocational stream of the temporary graduate visa program.
  • A detailed study to better analyse international student outcomes and their pathways into the labour market.

Oh and outside of education, there’s three pathways for its new “skills in demand” visa which will replace the existing temporary skill shortage visa – one for “specialist skills” for those on over £70k, one for “core” skills with a “simpler” occupation list, and one for “essential” skills with a lower threshold for lower income roles where there’s a labour shortage.

Four things are notable about the plan when compared to the handling of the issue in recent weeks in the UK. This really does feel like a proper plan, albeit that the Australian sector has spent the day making similar noises about the country’s competitiveness in the market and the way that international fees are funding the sector there too.

Secondly, the competence and detail surrounding its presentation is likely to give students certainty where little exists in the UK. There’s ongoing material in there on agent behaviour and medium term action on employability – both areas of weakness in the UK. And it feels like it really is targeted in a way that the blunt measures in the UK are not.

Anyone hoping for all restrictions on study visas in the UK being lifted by a Labour government is probably kidding themselves. This is the sort of package they ought to be aiming at.

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