Australia Unveils Ambitious 10-Year Plan to Transform Temporary Migration Program

December 18, 2023

In a bold and transformative move, the Albanese government of Australia has officially announced a comprehensive 10-year strategy aimed at revamping what it perceives as a “broken” temporary migration program. This groundbreaking initiative, revealed on Monday, represents a multifaceted approach to address concerns of exploitation, streamline pathways for top global talent, and elevate standards for international students.

The strategic core of this initiative involves a decisive crackdown on the perceived misuse of student visas, particularly as a backdoor entry for employers seeking to import low-skilled workers. A significant aspect of this crackdown is the introduction of more stringent minimum English-language requirements for individuals entering Australia on a student visa. Crucially, these language requirements will now align with those imposed on skilled visa applicants, ensuring a higher calibre of language proficiency. Despite these tightened requirements, students will retain the option to work part-time, striking a delicate balance between educational pursuits and practical experience.

Simultaneously, the government is set to reduce the number of entrants under the middle-tier skilled worker visa category, affecting individuals earning over $70,000 annually. The minimum salary threshold for this visa will now be annually indexed, reflecting an ambitious attempt to ensure that successful applicants possess “core” skills genuinely needed in Australia. Additionally, the government is actively exploring avenues to facilitate the entry of lower-skilled workers essential for critical sectors such as care industries, acknowledging the diverse skill sets required to sustain Australia’s economic landscape.

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil, in unveiling the 10-year migration strategy, emphasized the government’s dual focus on attracting skilled migrants while cracking down on non-genuine international students and migrant workers. Australia’s net migration level, which peaked at 510,000 last financial year, is forecast to fall to more sustainable levels, reaching 375,000 next year and 250,000 in 2025.

O’Neil pointed out that changes to the migration system, implemented earlier this year, are already exerting “downward pressure” on net migration. She highlighted the government’s efforts to strike the right balance in Australia’s migration system, inheriting what she described as a “basket case” from the previous Coalition administration.

The new strategy includes measures targeting international education, with increased English language requirements for student and temporary graduate visas, aiming to enhance the quality of students’ educational experience and reduce workplace exploitation.

Under the International English Language Testing System, applicants for a Graduate visa will now require a score of 6.5, up from 6.0, while Student visa applicants will need a 6.0, up from 5.5. The government acknowledges that international students and graduates constitute the largest share of “permanently temporary” migrants, with 108,000 having stayed in Australia for five or more years.

The strategy introduces increased scrutiny for those applying for a second visa, addressing concerns about a significant rise (over 30% to 150,000 last year) in international students staying in Australia on multiple successive student visas. The strategy notes that these further student visas are often not driving professional advancement but are instead used by former students to stay in Australia as an alternative to meeting permanent resident or other skilled visa requirements.

The government also expresses concerns about dubious private vocational education and training providers aiding “non-genuine students” in gaining access to Australia’s labor market through student visas. To counteract this, a new “genuine student test” will be introduced for all international students, making it clear that the majority are expected to return home after completing their studies.

A significant overhaul of the Temporary Skilled Migrant Income Threshold (TSMIT) takes center stage in the strategy. The TSMIT, designed to protect migrant workers from being paid less than their domestic counterparts, will now be subject to annual indexation, allowing flexibility to adjust to economic conditions.

Some industry representatives argue that the TSMIT is too high, particularly in sectors like hairdressing facing domestic skills shortages. The decision to index TSMIT, while potentially subjecting it to further growth, aims to address medium-term concerns.

The strategy introduces a new Specialist Skills Visa pathway for jobs paying above $135,000, requiring niche experience and expertise. Applications under this visa format will be streamlined, with a target of a seven-day processing time. This visa is anticipated to attract about 3,000 people annually, contributing significantly to the economy.

In an op-ed, Minister O’Neil reflected on the experiences of companies like Smart50 award winner Goterra, which struggled to recruit a specialist from overseas under the existing visa regime. The strategy aims to make Australia more attractive to top overseas talent, offering a new visa type for startups with venture capital funding to sponsor workers.

The Tech Council of Australia has warmly welcomed this reform, anticipating benefits from streamlined and simplified visa processes for highly-skilled employees. TCA CEO Kate Pounder highlighted the positive impact these workers will have on training and upskilling existing workers, benefiting both individual careers and the broader economy.

As Australia embarks on this ambitious 10-year plan, it signifies a paradigm shift in the nation’s approach to migration. Striking a balance between attracting global talent and ensuring the integrity of the system, the government aims to create a sustainable migration landscape that meets the country’s economic needs while addressing concerns of exploitation and misuse. The success of this strategy could redefine Australia’s position as a destination for skilled migrants and set a new standard for effective and inclusive migration policies worldwide.

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