Labor Senators support the aim of the new skilled regional visas, which is to change the geographic distribution of visa holders by increasing the number who reside outside major cities, in ‘regional Australia’.
However, we are concerned that the new visas have not been fully thought through, the details are unclear, and there could be serious unintended consequences.
The Minister through regulation will define living in regional Australia as to ‘not be residing in Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane or the Gold Coast or Perth.’
The bill relates to two new visas, which are being introduced through delegated legislation, the Migration Amendment (New Skilled Regional Visas) Regulations 2019 [F2019L00578]:
Subclass 491 – Skilled Work Regional (Provisional) Visa for skilled people who are nominated by a state or territory government or sponsored by an eligible family member to live and work in regional Australia; and
Subclass 494 – Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional (Provisional) visa, enabling an Australian business to sponsor skilled workers to work in their business in regional Australia.
Visa holders will be required to live in regional areas for three years, after which they will become eligible for a permanent visa.
While the Government argued that its new visas and associated population measures will decrease congestion, it has failed to explain in detail how the 23,000 new visa holders per year settling in regional Australia will be supported.
The New Skilled Regional Visas (Consequential Amendments) Bill makes consequential amendments to legislation administered by various Departments including: the Department of Social Services, the Department of Education and the Attorney-General’s Department.
These Acts are amended by the bill:
A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act 1999
Disability Services Act 1986
Fair Entitlements Guarantee Act 2012
Higher Education Support Act 2003
National Disability Insurance Scheme Act 2013
Paid Parental Leave Act 2010
Social Security Act 1991.
The bill gives effect to Government policy that holders of provisional skilled regional visas – which come into effect on 16 November 2019 – will have access to welfare payments or government services as if they are holders of permanent visas in line with arrangements currently applicable to permanent residence visas.
The Government claims that these new visas, with associated benefits, will encourage visa holders to remain in regional Australia, which in turn will bolster local communities and enhance local economies.
However, as with many aspects of this Government’s migration policies, how the visas will apply in practice remains unclear. There is a serious risk that the broader immigration and regional policy goals will be undermined by poor governance.
The Government must explain what services and infrastructure, as well as social support networks, will provided for regional communities that experience an increase in migrant populations.
Given this Government’s track record – and the Minister for Home Affair’s general mismanagement of his Department and his obsession with obtaining partisan political advantage – Labor Senators wonder if, and how, these visas will ever be implemented properly. Proper implementation and administration of these arrangements is vital for the visa holders themselves, their new communities, and the integrity of Australia’s immigration system.
Although the bill makes amendments to seven pieces of legislation, a significant number of the submissions are from stakeholders in the higher education sector and they raise concerns about how these changes will impact the Higher Education Support Act 2003. On this basis, Labor Senators will focus our additional comments on this part of the Bill as a case study.
Threat to Australia’s international education reputation
In 2018, there were 869,709 international student enrolments in Australia, of whom only 3 per cent of the enrolments were in regional Australia. The international education market contributed $36 billion to the Australian economy in 2018.
Australia regional universities have always struggled to increase their offering to the international student market. The Government’s own consultation paper, Growing International Education in Regional Australia, acknowledged that there is a perception that regional institutions have limited course offerings and are placed much lower in international rankings.
Nothing in this Bill will address these core issues facing regional universities.
Maintaining high standards and achieving a reputation for excellence mean everything in international education. Australia is highly regarded internationally as a quality provider of education, so any changes that may affect the international education system must be carefully considered and carefully implemented.
Since the Coalition Government’s funding freeze ended the demand-driven system, Australian universities have been forced to turn to the international student market to balance their budgets.
It has been reported that RMIT University generates 40 per cent of its total revenue from international student fees, and that some of the elite research-intensive Group of Eight universities generate about 35 per cent of their total revenue by the same means. However, some sector experts believe these figures are understated.
With China, India and Nepal making up close to 50 per cent (see below) of the international student market, any change in geopolitical circumstances could place Australian universities in dire straits.
Labor Senators also stress their concern that there has been no advice from the Department of Home Affairs about resourcing compliance for the two visa subclasses. This is raised in the context of the growth in student numbers from the Asian sub-continent, and the media reports that the Department Home Affairs has raised the student visa risk status of India, Nepal and Pakistan from medium to high, due to fears of fraud, visa cancellations and visa holders becoming unlawful non-citizens.
Labor Senators acknowledge that these media reports are consistent with the Department of Home Affairs policy manual which states that the risk ratings should be updated every six months in March and September, but also note that the manual states that the immigration risk rating should not be disclosed.
The proposed new arrangements which encourage holders of subclass 491 and 494 visas to settle in regional Australia also pose another possible risk for Australia’s higher education system. The risk is if international students’ decisions on where to study are driven by visa issues rather than education choices. Australia has seen the consequences of these imbalanced incentives previously in 2009 which prompted a focus on quality assurance.
Overreliance on delegated legislation
Labor Senators note that (at the time of writing) the Migration Amendment (New Skilled Regional Visas) Regulations 2019 [F2019L00578], which create the two new visa sub classes, were subject to a notice of motion to disallow the instrument while the Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances seeks further advice from the Minister.
Labor Senators reiterate that significant changes to the law (including significant changes to Australia's migration regime) should generally be enacted via primary, not delegated legislation.
This bill once again highlights this Government’s reliance on delegated legislation. Neither the establishment of the visas themselves, nor the locations at which they will apply are actually part of the legislation but are instead subject to change by the Minister through regulation.
The Committee on Regulations and Ordinances has already raised concerns with the Minister about:
the imposition of fees (taxation);
the inclusion of significant matters in delegated legislation; and
It is in this context that Labor Senators note that the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation committee’s recommendation to pass the bill is subject to resolution of the motion to disallow the Migration Amendment (New Skilled Regional Visas) Regulations 2019.
Definitions of Regional Australia leaving the system open to rorting
Labor Senators note the concerns raised by members of higher education community about the inconsistency in how the Minister has defined – by legislative instrument – what is a “designated regional area”.
Labor Senators are concerned that this change may not be driven by the needs of students or with the aim of improving the quality of education in the regions, but by the prospect of directing funding to a region for base political purposes.
Griffith University raised concerns in their submission to the committee that:
Three State Capital Cities, Adelaide, Darwin and Hobart as well as the national capital, Canberra, are considered regional for the purposes of Skilled Regional Visas that include International Students. It is particularly difficult to comprehend why Adelaide, with a population of 1,315,346 more than twice that of the Gold Coast's 663,321 according to 2018 data, is considered Regional over the Gold Coast.
The Australian Technology Network of Universities (ATN) also raises concerns with the Minister’s definition:
ATN notes that the regional/rural classification creates some inequalities in relation to Perth being excluded from the definition, while areas such as Canberra, Adelaide and Wollongong would be included. Perth is considered one of the most isolated cities in Australia and as a consequence has been at considerable disadvantage in relation to attracting international student s to the state. A reconsideration of this classification would assist in addressing this matter.
Labor Senators are concerned about the arbitrary way in which the Minister has made this definition and that it may be made more arbitrary in future, with further regulatory changes by the Minister.
Past actions by this Government have seen university campuses in suburban areas defined as regional and eligible for extra Commonwealth funding. A notable example of this is Federation University Australia’s Berwick campus, which is located only 40km south east of the Melbourne city centre; however in 2018 the campus received $40.7 million of a $92.5 million program that was designed to support more students at five regionally focused universities over four years.
Other funding recipients included: Caboolture and Fraser Coast campuses of the University of the Sunshine Coast (QLD), Central Coast Medical School and Research Institute of the University of Newcastle (NSW), Central Queensland University (QLD) and James Cook University (QLD). Almost all of these university campuses at the time were located in marginal Coalition-held seats.
Yet again, these changes appear to be a political fix to the Coalitions internal divisions.
Labor Senators also note the concerns raised the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) that these changes are not only open to rorting but also worker exploitation if left unchecked:
The two provisional skilled visas referred to in this Bill – that is, the Skilled Work Regional (Provisional) (Subclass 491) visa and the Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional (Provisional) (Subclass 494) are specifically created for regional and rural areas, where evidence has shown the risk for worker exploitation to be particularly high. This is of particular concern because, as noted, the current provisions to deal with exploitation of temporary workers have proven to be ineffective.
No plan to maintain a regional workforce
Labor Senators acknowledge the concerns raised by the ATN and Rural Councils Victoria that the Government has not presented a plan or long-term strategy on how to encourage visa holders to remain in regional communities after the prescribed three year waiting period is over.
Transfer of existing exemptions for Australian universities
The Government’s botched 457 visa program reforms in 2017 resulted in it being besieged by industry because of unintended impacts, especially in the scientific and research sector. The sector is acutely aware of any changes that may impact educators, innovators and researchers of global standing in science, medicine, academia, research and technology here in Australia.
Labor Senators note the recommendation in the Joint University Submission which calls for the existing exemptions that apply to the Employer Nomination Scheme (Subclass 186) and the expansion to the existing exemptions in relation to Age, Skills Assessment and Work experience requirements for Australian University sponsors for professional and managerial positions be made available to the two new visa sub classes.
More generally, Labor Senators note Universities Australia advice to the committee:
UA advises caution when finalising the settings for these visas to ensure that the conditions associated with the new skilled regional visas are not so restrictive as to act as a deterrent to potential visa applicants. Visa settings which do not provide a degree of flexibility to allow for changes in individual personal or professional circumstances may be counterproductive.
Labor Senators are concerned that the Government has failed to understand the complexity of the issues that must be considered when making even minor changes to visas that affect Australia’s international education system.
Labor Senators understand that because these issues are so complex there can be no quick fix. But the reputation and high standards of Australia’s international education system must not be put at risk for base political purposes.
Labor Senators support the aims of this bill and the policy intent behind the new skilled regional visas. However, in their current form, the visas and consequential amendments to legislation are ill-considered and poorly defined. Unless the Government addresses the concerns raised by the education sector and others in relation to the new visas, the visas could have serious unintended consequences.
Senator the Hon Kim Carr
Labor Senator for Victoria
Senator Anthony Chisholm
Labor Senator for Queensland