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Go8 Submission to Planning Australia’s 2021-22 Migration Program

Department of Home Affairs

The Group of Eight (Go8) is pleased to have the opportunity to make this submission on a subject which is clearly critical to the nation and to the Go8 as we enter into a very different economic future, as a result of COVID-19.

Please note this submission presents to you the views of the Go8 as the network which represents Australia’s eight leading research-intensive universities. Our member universities may also make their own, more detailed submissions.

Background: 

The Go8 is acutely aware of our responsibilities, and by how much the nation is relying on our determination to maintain our globally renowned reputation for delivering world-leading research results that benefit not only Australia and its economy, but the world.

After all, in a nation which relies heavily on its universities to carry out the bulk of its required research, it is the Go8 which alone carries out 70 per cent of that university research. The Go8 is therefore vital and integral to the Federal Government’s publicly stated reliance on research to assist  Australia’s post COVID-19 recovery as a more sovereign nation.

The Go8 universities are consistently – by a significant margin – Australia’s highest ranked in major international rankings. In detail, we account for more than half of all collaborative Australian research papers; and attract funding from industry and other non-government sources that is twice the rest of the sector combined. [1]  These facts attest to the exceptionally high quality, and external value and necessity, of the research that the Go8 conducts.  

The Go8 also educates more than a quarter of all higher-education students in Australia – both domestic and international – which positions us to impart our cutting-edge discoveries to the next generation of professionals entering the workforce. This ensures they are prepared for future challenges. Our entry standards are consistently high, and it is a fact that we educate the leaders of tomorrow, here and frequently also overseas.

The Future:

Despite Australia’s successful management of COVID-19, and despite global efforts to develop and administer an effective vaccine, we accept that the future is now different for all of us.

It is far from trite when we state that the Go8 universities are committed to assist in growing future national prosperity and increased living standards for all.

We know Australia must adapt to increased geopolitical tensions; disruptions and vulnerabilities in supply chains; challenges to our export industries (including international education); and ensuring an adequate workforce skilled for an increasingly fast-changing knowledge-driven economy.

This confluence of circumstances emphasises the need, as stated above, to develop greater sovereign capacity; to support and accelerate a revitalised and strengthened economy better suited to post-pandemic realities.

Technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, cyber technologies, quantum computing and advanced manufacturing have already begun transforming our industrial landscape, and this must accelerate in coming years. The significant expertise Australia has in these areas means we are well positioned to compete, as we must, for economic and geopolitical relevance and strength.

However, the fact remains that international engagement – ensuring an ongoing supply of talent and allowing that talent to be challenged by the best and brightest minds elsewhere – is actually a critical element to ensuring our domestic industries remain active and engaged and at the cutting edge.

Australia cannot afford to become an economic and research island and nor can our research-intensive universities.

Domestic talent requires a degree of international engagement to develop to its full capability. The Go8 has long expressed that for global tragedies such as EbolaA and COVID-19, famine, lack of electricity and safe water to be addressed, requires global brains working together in partnership, in teams.

Without this, we would risk our experts becoming locked out of international conversations and developments that advance these rapidly moving fields, so many of which we need here for our own development and security.

The Go8 acknowledges upfront that one positive from COVID-19 is the number of our highly skilled professionals deciding now is the time to bring their families back home and, aided by the benefit of an international experience, relocate their careers to now building Australia.[2]  This provides our nation with the added opportunity of achieving its more sovereign nation goals.

However, it is also the case that a mid-sized nation like Australia needs mechanisms in place to supplement the domestic talent pool wherever it may be lacking, especially in new and emerging areas. And we cannot be arrogant enough to believe we can do it alone.

Required  talent imports can then be encouraged, enthused and assisted to stay here permanently – as the majority of our population was before us – through targeted migration pathways. These specialists can help to develop new domestic industries by sharing and building new knowledge bases onshore.

One measure of Australia’s success in this regard will be the level of demand amongst highly skilled people seeking to relocate here. It is important that the right mechanisms – from expedited visas to exceptional national and State knowledge of skilled migrant requirements – are in place to facilitate this process.

The Go8 believes that, with the right policies, including a targeted and calibrated balance between temporary and permanent migration settings, we can maximise our domestic potential, build new knowledge areas, and ensure Australia’s success as a leading and engaged sovereign nation.  

How Australia could do this is explored further below:

  1. How can the Migration Program Settings Facilitate Economic Growth while Promoting Australian jobs and Enhance Social Cohesion in the Context of Challenges Posed by the Global Pandemic?

There is a perception amongst some sections of the community that the majority of international students who come to study in Australia do so with the intention of becoming citizens.  

They do not. This myth must be busted if the way forward for migration policy settings is to both work economically and be understood by the community.

The Go8 noted in our submission to the Select Committee on Temporary Migration, that while many such students do take advantage of post study work rights (which can extend up to four years), a 2018 Federal Treasury paper found that in reality only around 16 per cent of international students remain in the longer term.[3]

Not only is there far more work to do to improve social cohesion by correcting this false impression amongst the Australian population, but the myth leads to areas of hidden skills shortages.

Department of Education data for 2019 (the most recent year available) show that foreign nationals comprised a significant proportion of our Doctorate by Research STEM cohorts, including in the fields of Natural and Physical Sciences (44%), Information Technology (59%), Engineering and Related Technologies (62%) and Agriculture, Environmental and Related Studies (47%).[4]  Similarly, at the University of Melbourne over 40% of its graduate researchers are international, many working on key topics such as pandemic microbiology and epidemiology.

This data is, of course, superficial as it relates to migration.

The data may appear rewarding and substantive but only if those graduates were to remain on-shore – when most don’t. They go home to build their home countries, which means Australia is vulnerable to shortages in these areas when only 16 per cent of students are eventually retained here. As shown above with the University of Melbourne, unless we maintain our ability to attract the best and brightest into our research universities, we will soon lose our sovereign research capabilities against existential pandemic challenges.

This could be supplemented further by harnessing the alumni who do leave our shores to establish science and technology networks and nodes in other countries. If policy settings and regulations were sufficiently harmonised – starting perhaps with five eyes nations as noted below – this could lead to the ongoing circulation of science and technology researchers and entrepreneurs who seek to leverage the respective advantages of Australia and their home country.

Reliance on data such as this alone of course will not be sufficient. It is but one warning that we must have real time data on national and State skills requirements. The Go8 is not saying this is always easy, only that it is a must-have.

We know rapid developments in many industries, and areas of shortage could arise quickly and in relatively specific areas. But we have to accept and act upon the fact that the ability to accurately identify these, in a timely way, that takes into account the likelihood of rapid changes in the environment, is essential.

Government, industry and universities with the appropriate areas of expertise must work collaboratively on mechanisms to quickly identify areas of need and provide an appropriate response – such as, for example, a targeted migration stream supplemented by doctoral or other degree programs to ensure these skills are disseminated as needed here.  

Perhaps one condition of such a fast-tracked stream could be – where appropriate – to connect the individuals to an academic unit or research team to consider how this might be achieved? This makes sense to the Go8 as smart facilitation. Areas of focus are likely to arise in emerging or critical industries. Inevitably in the current environment, this will encompass sensitive security areas, both already identified and emerging as such industries develop.

Australia could facilitate the mobility of international talent in such sensitive areas by leveraging already existing security-related networks, such as the very active and engaged Five Eyes. With those trusted nations and their (equivalent leading research status to Go8) universities, this would allow for harmonised and fast-tracked processes in areas of identified need, based on robust and trusted security considerations.

Unfortunately, the Go8 is already aware of obstacles that have arisen from regulatory differences related to staff transfers between local and overseas-based units of a single company working on the very same research; most notably in the defence sector.  

Bringing all this into new or improved alignment will help create trusted networks that could be the solution to us having essential international exchange (for our security, economic and societal benefit) in areas that we would otherwise seek to protect.

Once in place, this could in turn be leveraged to fast-track individuals with required and in-demand skillsets and have them consider the enormous values of settling permanently in Australia.

This is likely to deepen connections between sensitive and critical industries across the Five Eyes partners, while meeting the need for international engagement to fuel domestic development and understanding.

  • To What Extent can Australia’s Migration Program’s Settings Influence Australia’s Attractiveness as a Destination for Migrants with Critical Skills to Assist Australia’s Economic Recovery? What Approach to these Settings Should the Government Take?

As noted above, science and technology (much of it within the Go8) will increasingly be the drivers of economic success as a foundation to build Australia’s sovereign capability.

And science and technology are in turn driven by research.

Throughout 2020, Australia demonstrated how Government, working in collaboration with expert advice and policy implementation teams, could successfully navigate our way through the challenges of a global pandemic.

Recognition of this success has seen many (and much needed) ex-patriot Australians return to rebuild their lives and careers here. Australia – through its Go8 universities – has excellent research capacity which is internationally recognised.  This – in combination with our demonstrated and highly successful pandemic approach – could be used to further promote our attractiveness as a coveted destination (following on of course from us having every Australian who wants to return back on-shore as per Government policy.)

The Go8 is in fact recommending that Australia seeks to repurpose its pandemic approach and success as a way to assist rebuild our post-pandemic economy and society.

A massive challenge is now an invaluable and proud opportunity we must grasp for our own ends.

In other words, by leveraging collaboration between expert researchers, Government and industry or business partners, in which high quality expertise is respected and utilised, Australia could position itself as a successful, engaged, vibrant country in which science and technology are supported and harnessed to the ongoing benefit of the community.

Such a society is likely to attract individuals with skills in high demand, who will want to live and work in such an environment.

Frankly what Australia is offering is extremely enticing in 2021, and if we can find the individuals then we must unashamedly target them and welcome them to boost our own expert cohort:  and also market ourselves as having a global reputation for having a welcome mat out for targeted skillsets.

We are a wonderful location in so many ways, from career to health, education and lifestyle and we must leverage these assets.

And it will be important for Australia to engage by using incentives. Competitor nations are also looking to skilled immigration to help them rebuild. As well as targeting subject matter experts, the Canadian government has stated that it “has made significant efforts to encourage international students to settle permanently… as they help create jobs and fill labour shortages so our businesses can thrive”.[5]

The newly appointed Biden Administration in the US has sent to Congress the Citizenship Act of 2021, which includes provisions to “make it easier for graduates of US universities with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the United States”.[6]

Australia already has a successful model in which Government, the university sector and security agencies work together on issues of national security through the University Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT).

The Go8 suggests that a similar body, involving Government, the university sector and industry partners (including emerging industries and start-ups) might work to provide the expert policy advice and direction to assist Australia to engage with highly skilled migrants in a timely and targeted manner.

The Go8 looks forward to being involved in further consultations about this important strategic area. We welcome any further opportunities to contribute to this important process.

Yours sincerely

VICKI THOMSON

CHIEF EXECUTIVE



[1] Go8 Facts of Distinction 2020, https://go8.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Go8-Facts-of-Distinction_web.pdf
[2] See for example, this report stating that 35,000 Australians were seeking to return as of November 2020:  https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/travel-waitlist-swells-as-thousands-try-to-get-home-for-christmas-20201112-p56e3u
[3] https://research.treasury.gov.au/sites/research.treasury.gov.au/files/2019-08/Shaping-a-Nation-1.pdf, p.21
[4] Department of Education, Higher Education Statistics Collection, 2019
[5] https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/news/2021/01/government-of-canada-announces-new-policy-to-help-former-international-students-live-in-work-in-and-continue-contributing-to-canada.html
[6] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/01/20/fact-sheet-president-biden-sends-immigration-bill-to-congress-as-part-of-his-commitment-to-modernize-our-immigration-system/