Australia: Universities worry new visa scheme will scare talent away

Australian universities are decrying the country’s move to axe a popular visa for skilled migrants, known as the 457 visa.

The 457 visa has been immediately replaced by two new visas with tougher requirements.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, universities worry the new system will stem the flow of academic talent to its institutions. A significant portion of their current and future staff rely on the older visa and its requirements to conduct research in the country.

“They’re really not people flipping burgers,” University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence told Fairfax Media.

“If you are building world-class expertise in a cutting-edge area of science, you’re probably going to need to draw from a gene pool larger than 23 million.”

The two new visas that replace the old 457 will require applicants to show at least two years of work experience in their fields to be eligible for a temporary work visa, according to the announcement by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on his Facebook page on Tuesday.

There will be a shorter list of qualifying occupations and a tougher English language requirement as well, but as of now, further details are still unknown.

Turnbull expects fewer entrants to Australia under the new scheme, he was reported to have said during a radio interview yesterday

“There will be a 2-year short-term skills visa, which can only be renewed once,” Turnbull said.

Turnbull also peppered the radio show with the phrase “Australian jobs for Australians”, which some view to be similar to the United States’ “America First” policy.

Higher education stakeholders have blamed the new American agenda for the loss their universities are facing due to the closing of borders to students and academics from around the world.

Confusion ensues

With such scarce details on the changed scheme and its requirements, the higher education sector is now baffled on how to approach their recruitment process from here on – will high-level research or a PhD count in the “work experience” criterion?

Many of Australia’s 95,000 foreign specialist hires under the 457 visa, like University of Sydney’s quantum computing unit, who are there based on their PhD qualification, instead of any commercial “work experience” background.

To clamp down on their mobility is “extremely damaging” to the country’s academic recruitment, according to the letter penned by the chairman of the powerful Group of Eight universities.

For Spence, Turnbull’s move to put the country’s international talent recruitment in jeopardy puts to question whether the prime minister is still concerned about the government’s oft-touted innovation agenda, which was at one point very important to him.

“I’d like to believe it’s still important to Malcolm Turnbull,” Spence said.

More hopeful about the situation is Alan Duffy, astronomer and physicist at Swinburne University. Duffy had arrived on a 457 visa almost a decade ago to work on an astronomical facility in Perth.

“We’re all a little alarmed, but still hopeful this can be clarified,” he said. “We want the world’s best for this country, and that means it is a global search.”

Another entrant via the 457 visa is Prof Michael Biercuk, who leads University of Sydney’s quantum computing unit. Biercuk says the law now, if interpreted strictly, means his university will not be able to hire fresh PhD holders from overseas.

“We really need to sort out this issue,” he said.

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