By Catriona Jackson, Universities Australia Chief Executive
Across the world, nations are emerging from a pandemic-induced slumber with renewed awareness that a homegrown labour force alone is not enough to meet their workforce needs and spur economic growth.
There is growing recognition, too, that international students can and should play a greater role in the migration mix.
In Britain, there is a push to almost double the number of international students who settle there permanently, from 18 per cent to 30 per cent, in the next few years.
Canada wants 25 per cent of permanent skilled places to be filled by student visa holders by 2024.
In the United States, it has been suggested that 1 million skilled migrants will be needed if America is to continue to lead the world in technological innovation. These people, of course, are educated in universities.
Global competition for talent has always been fierce, but the impact of COVID-19 on the flow of skilled workers has reignited the contest. With the pandemic receding into the background and borders open, the starting pistol has been fired and the race for the best and brightest is heating up.
Australia is at the back of the pack, which is troubling considering our favourable starting position.
Our education system is one of the best in the world. Each year, our world-class universities attract hundreds of thousands of international students – more than almost all our global peers, bar two – yet only 28 per cent use their post-study work rights in Australia and just 16 per cent become permanent residents.
With workforce participation soaring to record levels, keeping the unemployment rate at a near 50-year low, we are feeling the impact of this self-inflicted brain drain more than ever.
Our migration system is largely to blame, and without intervention, chiefly through the current review of Australia’s migration system, we risk falling further behind the nations with which we compete for talent.
With about 100 visa subclasses, our system is overly complex and not fit for purpose. It deters rather than encourages the talented and diverse people we need, slowing the flow of skilled workers and researchers who drive our economy and progress, and holding back international students who make us stronger.
The system, in its current state, has more barriers than gateways. Extended wait times, a lack of visibility around application status, and little certainty are just some of the issues talented people face in coming to Australia.
Meanwhile, our global competitors are taking action to increase the number of international students in their migration mix in recognition of the significant contribution they make, socially and economically.
If we are serious about building a strong, skilled and capable workforce to ensure Australia can navigate the coming decades safely and successfully, we need to hit the reset button now and design a migration system that supports Australia’s future.
Australia is, after all, one of the world’s great multicultural success stories, and we need a system that acknowledges the past, present and future benefits of migration to our nation.
It makes sense to rely more heavily on international graduates to plug skills and knowledge gaps, as Britain, Canada and the US have already acknowledged, and are moving towards.
By the time these students graduate, they are well-adjusted to the country they have studied in and have already made a considerable economic and social contribution.
If there is a clear need for their skills and knowledge, why shouldn’t our system encourage them to stay?
International students also play a fundamental role – through research or otherwise – in building understanding between nations and developing relationships, which is important to regional stability.
Analysis by Universities Australia found that in 2019, when international education pulled in record export earnings of $40.3 billion, only 7.5 per cent of student visa holders moved to a permanent skilled visa.
The same analysis found that just 10 per cent of student visa holders were granted permanent skilled visas in the past 10 years. That’s 121,105 skilled workers from a pool of almost 1.2 million.
A small increase in permanent skilled visas – as little as a few per cent – going to international students would give regional towns and capital cities the engineers, nurses, doctors and teachers they are crying out for.
Other countries have cottoned on to this. We should build our own system to deal ourselves into the global race for the talent and skills we need. We already have ground to make up.