The government has agreed to address concerns raised by universities over proposed changes to 457 work visas, Universities Australia said on Thursday. The Group of Eight or Go8, comprising Australia’s eight leading research-intensive universities, voiced fears that the changes would put at risk Australia’s AU$21.8 billion (US$16 billion) international education industry.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, the Go8 said it was concerned about potential unintended consequences for Australia’s international higher education sector as a result of the abolition and replacement of the 457 visa system, announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Professor Peter Høj, chair of the Go8, said it sees there is “potential for a perverse outcome that may put at risk many of the estimated 130,000 jobs supported by Australia’s AU$21.8 billion international education industry”.
457 visa system replaced
The government has switched the category of university lecturer into the short-term, two-year visa stream with no path to permanent residency. Currently, some 2,000 lecturers working in Australian universities hold 457 visas, The Australian reported.
In addition, the temporary skills shortage visas that will replace the 457 visas will require applicants to have two years’ work experience, which will rule out universities from recruiting newly graduated PhD students from universities abroad who haven’t already gained such work experience.
Currently 457 visa holders can avoid this requirement if they have a specific formal qualification such as a PhD.
Universities also believe the removal of more than 200 jobs from the skilled occupations list, including life scientists, civil engineers, historians, microbiologists and archaeologists, will be devastating to attempts to lure world-class researchers and scientists.
Høj said at face value the new technical arrangements for the Temporary Skills Shortage visas and Employer Sponsored Permanent Skilled visas may make maintaining Australia’s international advantage more difficult.
“More broadly, the mere suggestion of the government clamping down on academic mobility into Australia could deter potential academic recruits to Australia,” he said.
On Thursday Universities Australia raised the concerns of higher education institutions at a meeting with senior government representatives, who committed to addressing the issues “as a matter of priority”, according to Universities Australia.
In particular, universities are seeking the removal of work experience requirements for PhD recruits and to restore university lecturers and tutors to the medium-term skills list, Universities Australia said.
“Universities Australia has been assured that the changes are not intended to deter the best and brightest academic talent – including the world’s leading new PhD graduates – from contributing their unique and special skills to Australia’s innovation agenda and future national prosperity,” Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said on Thursday.
“We were also pleased to see Education Minister Simon Birmingham confirm tonight that international student visas remain unchanged,” she said.
“Amid global uncertainty, we must make the most of the historic opportunity we have to recruit brilliant intellects from around the world to work alongside our home-grown academic stars.”
Cutting off a vital pathway
Turnbull announced the visa changes on Tuesday, saying: "Australian workers must have priority for Australian jobs, so we are abolishing the 457 visa, the visa that brings temporary foreign workers into our country. We will no longer allow 457 visas to be passports to jobs that could and should go to Australians."
Following the announcement, university representatives spoke out strongly against them.
Professor Duncan Ivison, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Sydney, said Australia is home to some of the world’s leading universities and researchers “partly because we have welcomed researchers from all over the world to pursue careers with us, whether in the life sciences, natural sciences, social sciences, humanities or creative arts”.
“This commitment to openness is now under threat,” he said.
More than 300 academics at his institution are on 457 visas, including Professor Michael Biercuk, a leader of the university's quantum computing unit.
He said the change “risks cutting off a vital pathway for the best young researchers to come to Australia. It would make recruiting the best international post-doctorate fellows extremely difficult.”
Richard Holden, professor of economics at UNSW Business School of the University of New South Wales, writing in the Australian Financial Review, described the changes as calamitous.
He said in the past five years the School of Economics at UNSW has hired numerous newly graduated PhDs as lecturers, all of them from overseas universities and citizens of other countries. This is because they had earned their doctorates at top universities such as Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton.
“The proposed two-year requirement would stop Australians hiring such folks,” he said. “That would be an unmitigated disaster for most academic departments at top universities in Australia.”
On Wednesday Høj, for the Group of Eight, said announcing the visa change was particularly a concern at a time when there are opportunities for recruitment from the United States and the United Kingdom and initiatives under way such as the recently announced Go8-India taskforce tasked with developing PhD and researcher mobility between Australia and India.
“Our universities operate in a truly international marketplace where we must compete against the best universities in the world for international students and academic talent. Establishing our reputation in this marketplace depends on attracting the best minds from around the globe to come to Australia to work with and foster local talent,” he said.
“Many outstanding Australians such as Professor Ian Frazer, Professor Fiona Wood – both Australians of the year – and Professor Brian Schmidt – Nobel Prize winner and vice-chancellor of the ANU [Australian National University] – who came to Australia as foreign researchers, were educated overseas at no cost to Australian taxpayers and have become great contributors to Australia and great Australians.
He said Australian universities can attract talent because of their quality, with six of them ranked in the world’s top 100, and had produced research estimated by Deloitte Access Economics to be worth AU$160 billion (US$120 billion).
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