Universities Australia Executive Director Policy Dr John Wellard
‘A migration system for all’
Thank you for that warm welcome.
And thank you to the Australia China Business Council for the opportunity to speak today.
Let me acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are gathered on, the Gadigal people, and pay my respects to elders past and present.
I think the last time this event was held we were still feeling the lingering effects of COVID-19.
The pandemic affected us all, but it had a particularly significant impact on our education and tourism industries.
Both sectors are major economic drivers and, ordinarily, are among our biggest export earners.
COVID-19, of course, changed that.
Prior to the pandemic, in 2019, education added $41 billion to our economy.
By 2021, it was worth half that.
The value of education becomes much greater when you consider the taxes paid by graduates who remain in Australia as skilled migrants, which I’ll come back to.
Tourism was hit even harder than education, plunging from $22.6 billion in 2019 to less than half a billion dollars in the same period.
Both industries are now recovering strongly, particularly our education sector.
Record earnings in the six months to June this year put its value at $21.8 billion, up from $19.4 billion in the same period in 2019.
This suggests we are on track to achieve a new high-water mark in 2023.
Record high international student numbers are driving this.
Right now, more international students are studying at our universities than at any other time in our history.
Almost half a million students from more than 140 countries, including more than 150,000 from China.
This is great news for our economy.
And it’s great news for the communities these students strengthen with the knowledge, perspectives and skills they bring.
We felt the absence of these students every day during COVID-19 – on our campuses, in our communities and across our economy.
We are better off for having them back.
Our challenge on this side of the pandemic is fully capitalising on the brilliant international students who choose to study at our universities.
And that means providing the opportunity for more of them to remain here after they graduate, when and where there is a clear need for their skills.
Our unis educate hundreds of thousands of international students each year.
Yet, we are largely failing to benefit from their skills and knowledge beyond the lecture theatre.
Only 28 per cent of these students use their post-study work rights in Australia and just 16 per cent become permanent residents.
As we grapple with major skill shortages across most sectors of the economy, Australia is worse off for this self-inflicted brain drain.
We are currently facing our worst skills crisis since the 1960s, with talent gaps apparent right across the economy.
The government’s latest skills shortage analysis shows professional occupations – jobs requiring a university education – are worst hit.
We don’t have enough health professionals, engineers, IT specialists – all professions international students come to Australia to study.
This isn’t a new issue, but it is getting worse.
COVID-19 fuelled the problem, limiting the flow of skilled workers to Australia.
It served as a reminder that a homegrown workforce alone is not enough to meet our workforce needs and spur economic growth.
We have an opportunity now to address this as we continue our recovery from the pandemic, and it lies in the government’s new migration strategy.
Universities Australia is firmly of the view that Australia can benefit from retaining more of the international students we educate to plug skills and knowledge gaps.
Our view is shared by the panel of experts which undertook the recent review of our migration system.
They say it would be a missed opportunity if Australia didn’t attempt to keep international students with high potential.
To our detriment, our existing visa system does not support this.
It deters rather than encourages these talented people to remain in Australia and use their Australian education in the area they have studied.
Our system has more than 100 visa subclasses.
It is overly complex and not fit for purpose, slowing the flow of skilled people who drive our economy and progress.
It holds back the flow of international students who make us stronger.
If there is a clear need for their skills and knowledge, why shouldn’t our system encourage them to stay?
By the time these students graduate, they are well-adjusted to our country and have already made a considerable economic and social contribution.
The government has an opportunity to address this issue through its new migration strategy.
We expect it to be released before the end of the year.
It can and should build on the positive steps the government has already taken.
We have welcomed measures to protect the integrity of our international education system through enhanced monitoring and compliance activities.
These actions put students first, which is where they belong, providing greater protection against unscrupulous operators.
We are also very supportive of the extension of post-study work rights for international students.
This is a practical change made in the national interest, and we urge the government to stick with it.
Extended rights will increase the availability of well-trained and highly capable workers to help ease current pressures in our labour market.
That is what we need to help combat the critical skill shortages that are weighing heavily on our economic growth.
Of the graduates who remain in Australia to work, the latest surveys tell us their employers are overwhelmingly satisfied with their performance.
We also know that growing numbers of international students are securing full-time work within the three-years of graduation on par with their domestic peers.
This is all happening at a time when other nations around the globe are moving to increase the number of international graduates in their migration mix, in recognition of the significant contribution they make.
Britain, Canada and the United States – nations with which we compete for talent – are all upping permanent residency targets for international students.
We need to do the same to continue to attract the skills and talents we need.
A small increase in permanent skilled visas going to international students would give our regional towns and capital cities the engineers, nurses, doctors and teachers they are crying out for.
In this respect, we would be better off replacing the current Genuine Temporary Entrant requirement with a genuine student requirement.
Universities Australia called for this in our submission to the migration review as a way of ensuring we are getting the talented people we need.
Now is the time to hit the reset button on our migration system and design one that supports Australia’s future.
Australia is, after all, one of the world’s great multicultural success stories.
We need a system that acknowledges the past, present and future benefits of migration to our nation.
International students have a key role to play.
Australia would be well served by a migration strategy that recognises this.