Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil
Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil has unveiled a plan to return migration to pre-pandemic numbers. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS
  • immigration

Migration overhaul targets students and dodgy employers

Kat Wong December 11, 2023

International students and exploitative employers will face greater scrutiny as the government tries to rein in migration levels from historic highs and reform a broken system.

Overseas net migration peaked during the last financial year as 500,000 people arrived in Australia, hundreds of thousands more than in previous years.

This was largely caused by the return of international students and tourists after the population shrank during the COVID-19 pandemic and although things have generally returned to normal, the number of migrants is expected to remain elevated.

 International students make up a significant majority of migrant numbers in Australia. Image by Julian Smith/AAP PHOTOS 

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil on Monday unveiled a strategy that could return migration to pre-pandemic numbers by the next financial year and halve net overseas migration to 250,000 by 2025.

“Our goal is to return migration to sustainable levels,” she told reporters on Monday.

“We have to run a migration program that maintains the support of the Australian community.”

International students – who make up a significant majority of migrant numbers and are Australia’s fourth largest export – would be subject to increased minimum English language requirements.

If the requirements were applied to the 2023 cohort, tens of thousands of students and graduates would not have received their visas.

Ms O’Neil said the protective measure would mitigate exploitation.

“English language skills are a key determinant of how successful an international student will be,” she said.

“What we have seen with students who are struggling with their English is that they are at much higher risk of exploitation and that they are likely to gather in really low-paid work and not be able to move out of that over time in our country.”

The government will also apply greater scrutiny to student visa applications from high-risk providers and shorten graduate visas to prevent migrants who are not prospective permanent residents from prolonging their time in Australia.

More than half of graduate visa holders are working significantly below their skill level – including some with degrees tied to skill shortages such as engineering and IT.

As such, the government hopes to strengthen graduate visas and bolster the prospects of genuine international students.

Migration strategy
 The federal government’s migration strategy could halve net overseas migration to 250,000 by 2025. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS 

“We are lifting standards for international students and ensuring that they are actually here to (learn) and not to work,” Ms O’Neil said.

“This is critical to restoring integrity and trust in the system.”

The migration strategy will boost pathways for skilled migration via new types of visas aimed at addressing shortages for high-paying and in-demand industries.

“We want scientists and doctors … (and) cybersecurity specialists to come here,” Ms O’Neil said.

“They will help with the productivity of everyone around them that will help grow businesses and create jobs.”

Workers at a restaurant in Brisbane
 Many graduate visa holders in Australia are working in jobs well below their skill level. Image by Dan Peled/AAP PHOTOS 

On the lower-paying end, the government will continue its crackdown on migrant worker exploitation by developing a public register of approved sponsors and co-ordinating with the tax system to improve post-arrival monitoring and compliance.

The measures follow a review by former public servant chief Martin Parkinson that made 38 recommendations after discovering the Australian migration system was not “fit-for-purpose”.

The review found the system failed to attract highly skilled migrants and facilitated worker exploitation among lower-paid migrants.

It also pointed to abuses of the international student acceptance systems that allowed non-genuine students to enrol in purely credential courses that provided a pipeline to the Australian labour market.

Opposition immigration spokesman Dan Tehan called the migration strategy “a joke”.

“Everything they are doing does not have a timeline,” he told reporters on Monday.

“There is no final outcome apart from some predicted lowering in about four or five years. 

“They are not serious about getting migration under control.”