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Go8 Opening Statement to the Select Committee on Temporary Migration

The Go8 appreciates the opportunity and it does enable me to update our views from our submission finalised in February.

February was such a different world with a different migration emphasis. It was a world we had no idea could change so fast and deliver us so many new imperatives and priorities for our nation’s future.

We saw this most recently in last week’s Federal Budget, the COVID-19 impact on Net Overseas Migration (NOM) was a recurring theme.1

It was identified as effecting working-age population growth and the age-structure of the population and is anticipated to “weigh on the economy into the medium term”.2

This is an issue Government has highlighted and one that Australia cannot afford to ignore.

As we state in our submission, temporary migration policies underpin many of the operations that help make the Go8 universities not only leading institutions within Australia but also on the world stage.

And let me – for clarity’s sake state upfront that by that we mean our international students who have temporary status, because all but 16 per cent of Australia’s international students do go home to live and work.

We know this from a 2018 Treasury paper.

I am always surprised how many people think the numbers are reversed and only 16 per cent go home.

Not at all. It is a very low percentage who transfer from temporary to permanent resident status. Home calls them, and why shouldn’t it.

But while here they are invaluable for many reasons.

They most definitely underpin so much at our Go8 universities, and they have done so for more than 50 years.

For decades international students have made a significant contribution towards enhancing the reputation and recognition of our universities – seven of our eight members are ranked in the world’s top 100 universities.

And what they contribute while here goes well beyond their exemplary study capabilities, their research prowess, or their fees, or even their culture which we all learn so much from on our campuses.

Independent analysis for the Go8 by London Economics found that – in the 2016 year – our 150,000 Go8 international students supported more than 73,000 jobs in our economy and contributed around $18 billion to national education exports.

The same analysis found that every three Go8 international enrolments generated around $1 million in economic impact.

This is all while they are students.

But international students go on to become graduates, and many of Australia’s international graduates take advantage of our post study work rights conditions to remain here for a number of years, working in our businesses, supporting our economy, and leveraging their skills to the benefit of our nation.

That two to four years depending upon your qualification of post-study work rights means a lot to the Australian economy. It’s additional taxpayers, additional workers for the economy, additional population out shopping, dining out, paying rent, taking holidays.

We should never underestimate the value they bring to our lives, our nation, economically and socially.

And it would be remiss of us to ignore that these temporary migrants give a lot back to us after they leave.

It may not be through direct dollars, but we do know that graduates who have a positive experience in Australia become major soft power assets for us overseas.

And it’s not just students. Research intensive universities around the world rely on their ability to recruit outstanding academics to support their local research efforts, and Australia is no different. The Go8 will always chase the best of the best to benefit Australia.

And we benefit whether they choose to come as temporary or permanent migrants. Many – just as so many Australians do – prefer a definitive period offshore, or to remain away from home for the life of a specific project, and why not.

If we can harness their brainpower as globally renowned researchers and academics on loan to us… why not.

As a nation we are not alone in seeing the world that way.

In 2019 the UK announced a fast track visa to attract elite scientists to live and work in the UK, to support their bid to become a global science superpower.3 Naturally these are exactly the same elite scientists Australia competes for.

The Go8 is keen for the Committee to understand the reality of our competitive world. Both securing the highest quality international students and securing the most elite scientists to come here is highly competitive, some say cutthroat.

Our competitor nations are mainly in our Five Eyes allies cohort and they don’t give us an inch!!

None of the above means the Go8 is saying Australia does not need permanent migration pathways!

The Go8 is absolutely certain about the value of the temporary residents we bring into the country.

We also know a lot of that value is lost (or shared) when they return home.

Whether we should work harder to keep these skills in Australia is a decision for Government.

What we do know is that our university-related temporary resident programs – that is – students and staff, is an exemplary breeding ground for the type of permanent residents this country would do well to recruit.

And pathways to permanent migration can be powerful attractors.

We also need to be mindful of what key competitor countries are doing – countries like Canada, the UK and the US.

Part of Canada’s attraction as a study destination is the immigration pathway, with international students awarded extra points through the federal express entry system.4 We should remember that the UK suffered “years of decline”, especially from Indian students, following the removal of the post-study work visa in 2012.5

The answer for any Government must lie in a carefully calibrated balance between temporary and permanent migration where one can lead to the other when of our choosing, and our economic need.

There are actions Australia could take to help secure our future, even in the current context.

Most importantly, absolutely number one is remaining competitive in the international student market in a post-COVID world

As I have stated, international students, and maintaining international collaborations, underpin the success of our university and research systems. This is the powerhouse that will fuel our post-COVID recovery.

This has been acknowledged by the Prime Minister as recently as the 7 October, when he said that “those who have studied in Australia and with the additional work rights that apply after the completion of their degrees… will continue to be an important part of how our economy works and we access the skills that we need”.6

There is also the need to raise public awareness of the value of international students to Australia’s social and economic success.

My home is in SA. Committee members may be aware that the State has an advanced pilot program, ready to return a controlled intake with quarantine of 300 international students back into the State. These are students who already had their visas to study here.

This program has been ready to go for some time and has been delayed twice. Its announcement – which should have been cause for celebration – caused considerable community backlash – understandably as residents seeking to enter SA for medical and others reasons were unable to do so at that time, and other SA residents were unable to secure a flight home from overseas.

I was not surprised by the response, but it tells me that we need to better explain the value of our international education industry to Australians. As we move, it is hoped into post-COVID recovery, I look forward to the return of our students to campus in 2021; and we will work harder to ensure the Australian community better understands the benefits that come with this.

The Go8 is committed to working with government, business and other stakeholders on a much-needed public information campaign to explain why each and every one of us benefits from temporary migration programs.

We must become far better at explaining why international students are so valuable to our society. And why they don’t take university places away from domestic students – rather, they help fund them.

We must also make sure international students understand that they are appreciated by Australians, not for their fees, but for the intrinsic value they bring to our society. Some of the language used in this debate – “cash cows”, “rivers of gold” is unfortunate and not conducive to welcoming temporary migrants in their host community.

COVID has caused major disruption to our international students. They’ve had a raw deal in 2020 just as our domestic students have. They haven’t been out of sight – out of mind though. Far from it.

And while disruption has been painful it also provides the opportunity to reflect, review, and consider ways to do things differently and hopefully better.

There are silver linings – we have the chance to look at how our temporary migration settings might integrate better into the bigger picture, as Australia’s economy shifts post-COVID. We must make sure we don’t waste the opportunity.

Thank you.

Contact: Vicki Thomson, Group of Eight Chief Executive on +61 417 808 472