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The government is bringing immigration back to 'normal levels' but cuts are not as dramatic as they seem

  • Written by Rachel Stevens, Research fellow, Australian Catholic University
The government is bringing immigration back to 'normal levels' but cuts are not as dramatic as they seem

On Monday, the federal government announced plans to fix Australia’s “broken migration system” and to “bring migration back to sustainable, normal levels”.

Its long-awaited migration strategy aims “to build a migration system that earns the trust and confidence of our citizens”, or what the government calls, “rebuilding the social licence”.

The government says these changes are the “biggest reforms in a generation”. It’s been reported the reforms will “dramatically cut”[1]“ the immigration intake. But don’t be fooled by the hyperbole.

Instead of thinking of the strategy as a complete overhaul, the reforms are a number of long overdue remedies dealing with migrant worker exploitation, misuse of international student visas and an overly complex and inefficient bureaucracy.

The intake cuts are overstated and will largely be the result of a natural evening out of migration patterns in the post-pandemic world. Even the Department of Immigration acknowledges the spike in arrivals is "temporary”, a phenomenon labelled as “the catch-up effect[2]” by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. If the current circumstances are only transitory, one wonders why the government is so keen to cut numbers.

It is important to look at how the department plans to reform immigration policy.

The policy document is 100 pages with much detail on the minutiae of immigration procedures. The broad areas covered are revising temporary skilled migration, cracking down on alleged rorting of the international education system, replacing annual migration plans with longer-term forecasting and getting the states and territories, which bear most of the resettling costs, more involved.

Temporary skilled migration

There are more than two million Australian residents on temporary visas, most of whom are New Zealand citizens, international students and graduates. Since coming to power the Albanese government has made no secret of its plan to end Australia’s reliance on temporary migrant workers and offer them achievable pathways to permanent residency.

International students celebrating their graduation
International students make up part of the two million residents on temporary visas. Huang He/AAP[3]

It has already made a start: in April[4] the government made it easier for eligible New Zealand nationals, to obtain Australian citizenship.

Last month, it introduced improved access to permanent residency for temporary skilled migrants[5] and unveiled a Skills in Demand visa, to help obtain permanency.

These are all welcome – if overdue – reforms. Commentators have long criticised Australia’s over-reliance on temporary migrants who are denied the security to build a new life in Australia.

The reforms will also decouple a migrant’s visa from their sponsoring employer, allowing the migrant 180 days to find a new visa sponsor (up from 60 days). Importantly, they can continue to work during these six months. Severing the visa link between migrant and employer, will empower more migrant workers to leave exploitative conditions without fear of deportation.

The government is committed to improving conditions and prospects for temporary migrants, yet the 38,000 Pacific Islanders entering each year on the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme will not benefit from these reforms.

Read more: Government to toughen scrutiny of international students as it slashes net migration over two years[6]

Despite worker exploitation[7], even workplace deaths[8], within the scheme, the program will continue and indeed be promoted as evidence of Australia’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific. The inherent contradiction between reforming the temporary migration system while sustaining the Pacific labour scheme seems lost on the government.

International education

Earlier this year[9] the government committed to closing loopholes and cracking down on “unscrupulous” education providers. Home Affairs minister Clare O'Neil and Immigration minister Andrew Giles say would-be migrants are securing student visas to gain a back door entry into Australia.

Man stands in front of large hall where he is lecturing hundreds of students The government believes many people wanting to move to Australia use student visas to get in. Matej Kastelik/Shutterstock[10]

The political rhetoric on international students and their alleged misuse of the visa system is incendiary and may foster a public backlash, as we witnessed in the 2009 violence against Indian students[11].

It is important to remember most of the recent growth[12] in international enrolments is in the higher education sector not the vocational education and training sector that is so often maligned.

Measures to reduce the number of international students, such as increasing English language proficiency, have been overstated in the media[13]. The new migration strategy will only increase the International English Language Testing System requirement for a student visa from a score of 5.5 to 6.0.

Besides, the government can’t have it both ways: for years it has been under funding universities[14]. It cannot expect universities to turn off the revenue tap of international students when there are no alternative funding sources available.

For international students, the reforms listed in the strategy are troubling. The pandemic concession of uncapped hours of paid work is gone in favour of a 48 hour per fortnight limit[15]. The argument here is that international students are in Australia to study, so they must study.

But during a cost-of-living crisis, international students may struggle to make ends meet with restrictions on the number of hours they can work. The government also plans to reduce the temporary graduate visa by one year for masters by coursework and PhD students. It will also reduce the maximum eligible age from 50 to 35.

Read more: What is the government's preventative detention bill? Here's how the laws will work and what they mean for Australia's detention system[16]

It is important to remember our universities are in competition with many more prestigious universities in North America and Europe for international students. Restricting the duration and eligibility requirements of temporary graduate visas may reduce the appeal of studying in Australia, which will affect higher education funding.

Long-term planning and cooperation

Historically, the migration program is revised annually and done so by the federal bureaucracy. The migration strategy wants to change this and “plan migration over a longer-term horizon” yet it does not spell out the new time frame.

In a standard three-year election cycle, it is hard to imagine how longer-term planning would work. The scant details in this section of the policy document indicate the writers themselves were not sure of how to implement this reform.

Additionally, the migration strategy recommends including states and territories in information sharing and in the decision-making process. Again, in theory, this is a good idea. Even though the Commonwealth determines who can enter Australia, it is often left up to the states to bear the cost of resettlement and integration.

But if our experience of COVID[17] is any indication, then collaboration across jurisdictions is far from guaranteed, particularly on a contentious and politicised issue such as immigration.

Read more: High Court reasons on immigration ruling pave way for further legislation[18]

While the policy blueprint may seem comprehensive, it is important to note what is not covered in any depth.

Family reunification is given four short paragraphs and includes no policy recommendations. This will be particularly heart breaking for those with elderly parents overseas[19]. Discussion on humanitarian entrants is also brief. Again, it makes no new announcements and repeats an August statement[20] that the government intends to increase the refugee intake from 17,875 to 20,000 places each year.

With the United Nations estimating there are more than 110 million[21] people currently displaced across the world, Australia’s paltry humanitarian intake will continue to be a source of shame for this country.


  1. ^ dramatically cut” (
  2. ^ the catch-up effect (
  3. ^ Huang He/AAP (
  4. ^ in April (
  5. ^ temporary skilled migrants (
  6. ^ Government to toughen scrutiny of international students as it slashes net migration over two years (
  7. ^ worker exploitation (
  8. ^ workplace deaths (
  9. ^ Earlier this year (
  10. ^ Matej Kastelik/Shutterstock (
  11. ^ Indian students (
  12. ^ recent growth (
  13. ^ media (
  14. ^ under funding universities (
  15. ^ 48 hour per fortnight limit (
  16. ^ What is the government's preventative detention bill? Here's how the laws will work and what they mean for Australia's detention system (
  17. ^ experience of COVID (
  18. ^ High Court reasons on immigration ruling pave way for further legislation (
  19. ^ elderly parents overseas (
  20. ^ August statement (
  21. ^ 110 million (

Authors: Rachel Stevens, Research fellow, Australian Catholic University

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