Federal and state changes to migration policies are threatening to erode the competitiveness of Western Australian education exports, heaping pressure on a sector already lagging other states in attracting foreign students.
In April, the federal government announced its 457 visa program would be replaced in March next year by a new visa, known as a Temporary Skills Shortage visa.
Previously, 457 visa holders were eligible to live and work in Australia for up to four years, and had a clear pathway to permanent residency after two years, if they are able to obtain sponsorship from their Australian employer.
The government announced that the 457 visa would be replaced by two new temporary skills visas – one for two years, and another four-year visa aimed at recruiting international workers with skills in high demand.
However, both visas have stricter requirements than the 457, with many previously eligible occupations removed from the government’s in-demand list.
Another restriction is that permanent residency will be harder to obtain under the new program, while applicants will be required to have a minimum of two years’ experience in an occupation considered by the federal government to be in shortage in Australia.
The work experience requirement means international students will be excluded from applying for 457 visas, unless they were already experienced before enrolling at an Australian university.
State government policy changes, ushered in by the McGowan government after the March state election, mean international students are also ineligible to apply for visas under the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS), another popular pathway to permanent residency.
While there has been no change to the federal legislation, which still classes Perth as a regional area, the state government will not process any RSMS applications for anyone living in the metropolitan area.
The policy was a Labor election commitment aimed at providing more work opportunities for WA residents, however, Global Enterprises Group managing director James Clarke said it was having unintended consequences in the education sector.
“By removing Perth as regional and with the changes coming in with the TSS visa in March next year, our international students in WA don’t have a pathway to permanent residency,” Mr Clarke told Australia China Business Review.
“The only thing they can get is a 485 graduate visa, which allows them to get about 18 months on a visa, to get work experience, but they will still fall short of the two-year requirement for the new 457, and they will still fall short of the three-year requirement of the 186.
“Basically, they will get a visa, work for 18 months, then either get married to an Australian and get a partner visa, or go back to their original country.”
Data from the Department of Education and Training protection show the number of applications for places at WA universities and vocational training institutions by Chinese nationals is trailing all but two states –Tasmania and the Northern Territory.
In the year to August 31, there were a total of 7,349 enrolments of Chinese students at tertiary institutions, vocational providers, schools, English language training providers and non-award courses in WA, according to the DET.
By contrast, there were 14,100 enrolments by Chinese students in the year to August 31 in South Australia, where Adelaide is still considered to be a regional area under the RSMS.
Those numbers show Chinese students are displaying a preference to study in SA over WA in 2017, likely because of the clear potential to obtain permanent residency.
At the same time, China’s Ministry of Education has reported that the numbers of students leaving China to further their education is on a rapid growth trajectory.
In 2016, official data showed there were 544,500 Chinese students studying overseas, 144,900 more than in 2012.
The most popular destinations were the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.
Mr Clarke said removing the possibility for permanent migration for students coming to Perth placed WA educational institutions at a serious disadvantage.
“What attracts students to Australia is not just the international qualification, it is actually to come to migrate, to stay,” Mr Clarke said.
“Australia as a brand pulls people, we have three of the 10 most liveable cities in the world in Australia, and that’s a pull factor, that’s why people want to come here. It’s an attractive place to come.
“If you then compare it on the international level by taking migration out, then where would you go?
“If you wanted to go and study elsewhere, just for the purpose of having an internationally recognised qualification, you’re not going to go to Australia, you will go to the UK or the US.
“You would want to go to Cambridge or Oxford, or a Cal (University of California) or a Harvard.
“That is the issue, if you remove migration from education, it’s going to struggle.”
The RSMS restriction for Perth residents also appears to be at odds with the state government’s wider education policies, which are aimed at increasing the attractiveness as Perth as an education destination.
At an event hosted by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia in July, Education Minister Sue Ellery said the state government was focusing on how to brand WA as the university town of choice for Chinese students.
Part of that focus is this month’s delegation to China, the first official international trip for the McGowan government.
Mr Clarke urged the state government to consider a more sophisticated approach to its visa restrictions to ensure WA was still competitive on a national and international level.
“There are ways you can change the settings,” he said.
“Adelaide and South Australia are very sophisticated in the way they sponsor people and allow them to migrate to South Australia, and they favour international graduates who have graduated from South Australia.
“If you are a South Australian international graduate, then the state will sponsor you, but if you’re not a graduate from South Australia, then you won’t get sponsored.
“We could take that model maybe, instead of just shutting the door.”