Simplification of the skilled migration and temporary activity visa programmes
Universities Australia Submission to Proposal Paper: Simplification of the skilled migration and temporary activity visa programmes – December 2014 Universities Australia (UA) welcomes the review of the skilled migration and temporary activity visa programmes and the intent to simplify the regulatory framework while ensuring it supports Australia’s long-term prosperity. Overarching comments Overall, the Proposal Paper suggests an approach, which if integrated with the government’s broader policy settings (across portfolios) and implemented thoughtfully, should deliver a marked improvement on current arrangements. The Proposal Paper rightly identifies contemporary global political and economic conditions as meaning we must shed any sense of complacency about our status as a favoured destination for skilled migrants. Global competition for skills is fierce and developments have materially impacted the comparative advantage Australia has to date offered potential visa holders. The factors impacting global skilled migration decisions are complex and fluid and need to be understood and responded to accordingly. For example, the recent depreciation of the Australian dollar will inevitably factor into migration decisions and Australia’s relative attractiveness as a destination. This may improve the affordability of study for international students in Australia, but may equally deter some skilled migrants from coming here in favour of destinations where currency values provide greater financial benefit. This example illustrates the need for Australia to have a migration policy framework that is well informed and adaptable to contemporary developments. Consequently, UA supports the intention to develop a more flexible, adaptable and responsive approach, and is encouraged that closer engagement will be sought across governments and portfolio agencies. Such an approach is likely to improve the coherence of immigration policy and other national priorities and objectives. Equally, expanding engagement with business, research and education sectors (for example) would further inform decision makers. From an education and workforce skills perspective, the proposed framework appears to balance flexibility and timeliness with the imperative of building skills capability domestically while reducing our exposure to fluctuations in skills demand. The guiding principles (page 4) appropriately identify the need to complement effective skilled migration policies and building domestic skills capacity. Ideally an informed and responsive framework, coupled with a coherent and forward-looking approach to education and skills investment will effectively safeguard the Australian economy against economic volatility and the risks associated with skills shortages. 2 The rapid growth in knowledge and associated technological developments is inevitably impacting demand for highly specialised knowledge – often critical to business competitiveness and innovative capacity. This is true for enterprise globally. The proposed framework must enable us to secure both skills in demand that are readily categorisable, as well as highly specialised skills and knowledge that are cutting edge and not easily dealt with in rigid categorical systems. If the framework facilitates access to these skills in a timely fashion and without undue regulatory burden it may deliver a competitive advantage for Australia. We note that the paper (page 18) also identifies “Future areas for investigation under a Permanent Independent Tested visa”. We commend the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (the Department) for examining options such as those identified, and encourage the Department to engage stakeholders in substantive exploration of these issues. For example, the proposal to explore new and emerging skilled occupations and develop predictive capacity in relation to technological changes and the skills and industry needs is an inherently difficult but important area to consider. Most importantly, the proposal recognises that we are in a fluid state and the paradigm that relies on identified occupation lists, even if targeted effectively, is unlikely to meet our future needs. A well informed, iterative dialogue with industry, research, education and other stakeholders to stay abreast of emerging opportunities, pressures and demand will be a crucial to maintaining national competitiveness. The Government’s priorities in relation to the Competitiveness Agenda and objectives in terms of workforce participation and productivity, strengthening the revenue and constraining demand for outlays (such as are associated with structural ageing) will all be impacted by the effectiveness and coherence of immigration policy. The following recommendations are made against the backdrop of an increasingly competitive and internationalised higher education market. Global talent is now mobile and this means that the Australian universities are competing with other institutions globally to attract and retain the best academic and professional talent. In the face of this stiff competition, the university sector needs a visa framework regime that is supportive of our objective to recruit international staff and students in a seamless, efficient and cost-effective manner. When setting visa processing charges, government may wish to consider the number of applicants likely to be supported by each institution within each visa category. Visa applications costs should not be prohibitive and should remain at a level where they constitute a small proportion of the overall cost burden of recruiting and supporting an overseas employee. This is particularly relevant where the role of the sponsoring organisation is that of a ‘host’ rather than an ‘employer’. Training and Specialist Research Visa This proposed visa seeks to merge three existing sub visas to simplify the application process for applicants and sponsors. It will be important for the proposed visa to enable flexibility such that it could be used for a variety of research activities including both fieldwork and short 3 periods of lab work for both paid and unpaid researchers at the post-doctoral level or otherwise. It will be necessary also that the sponsorship conditions do not impose onerous workloads on sponsoring organisations. Consideration should be given to enabling family members to enter Australia as visitors on the same visa as the main applicant, acknowledging that family members should apply for their own visa if intending to pursue work or study. Sabbaticals form a valuable component of an academic’s professional development and provide critical time for reflection, research and engaging with and contributing to scholarly activity outside their own in-country networks. Having access to a supportive family and home environment while overseas is often an important contributory factor to the success of a sabbatical. This visa type could greatly simplify the visa application process for prospective research fellows, visiting scholars and post-doctoral researchers by providing just one visa type to satisfy most scenarios, whether paid or un-paid, of various durations. We recommend government extend the visa validity period to 5 years instead of 3 years, thereby aligning the visa validity period with funding periods for major international Fellowships schemes, such as National Science Foundation, European Union, National Institute of Health. We further recommend government remove the requirement for a statement of guarantee from the Australian organisation detailing salary and conditions reflective of the Australian standard. This visa category is likely to be heavily utilised by universities to host individual applicants who may already be funded through overseas organisations in their home country to undertake a fellowship in Australia. Future Areas for investigation under a Training and Specialist Research visa Proposal: The establishment of an ‘Approved Training List’ could contain identified and approved training programmes. This will ensure the integrity is managed and only genuine people enter on this visa, for the right activity. The establishment of the list will take place in close consultation with relevant government departments, as well as business and industry groups. As professional development or training programs are often developed specifically for a cohort of international participants an ‘approved training programmes list’ would not meet the need of visa applicants and prove extremely difficult to maintain. Rather a list of approved training providers, potentially education or research institutions with TEQSA or ASQA accreditation, would provide security against abuse and ensure the ongoing integrity of the visa. Proposal: When applying for this visa subclass to undertake Specialist Research, universities could affirm that the specific qualifications of the prospective migrant had been checked by the university prior to acceptance, in letter of invitation. This proposal has merit as universities check academic qualifications before offering a training or research placement to most potential visa recipients. It should be noted that not all 4 international participants in an executive training program or similar will have prior qualifications to check. The letter of invitation appears to be an appropriate vehicle for assuring Department of Immigration officials that these checks have been made, but there may be more appropriate alternatives. Proposal: In consultation with Universities Australia, a checklist could be developed to identify approved courses for temporary migrants undertaking post-doctoral research. Post-doctoral researchers are not students completing a course of study. They are researchers and as such a checklist for approved courses is not appropriate. An approved list of organisations that host post-doctoral researchers including universities, CSIRO and medical research institutes would be an appropriate alternative measure. Universities Australia would be pleased to assist in the development of such a list. Key Visa Components Skills Assessments- we support the views expressed by other stakeholders that skills assessments should be based upon skills requirements set by peak industry bodies based upon existing industry standards. A lack of alignment between industry standards and assessment requirements is detrimental to applications by skilled workers seeking to remain in Australia as permanent residents. Sponsorship and Nominations- we recommend that the Department consider developing one sponsorship agreement to cover all programmes. We also recommend that the Department consider a dedicated processing team to support applications from accredited sponsors so that a timely decision can be made on applications. A delay in visa processing can result in loss of candidates as they accept other offers from competitor institutions.