Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April 2017
It’s the key question for universities grappling with the Turnbull government’s abolition of 457 visas: can they still bring in the big brains they often need from overseas?
As part of the changes ushered in by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Tuesday, applicants will be required to show they have at least two years of work experience in their field to be eligible for a temporary work visa.
But confusion reigns in the higher education sector over whether university qualifications such as a doctorate (PhD) or high-level research will count as work experience.
The powerful Group of Eight universities wrote to Mr Turnbull on Wednesday complaining the new rules could be “extremely damaging” to academic recruitment.
University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence said he had “huge concerns” about the changes and warned they could have “unintended consequences”.
The research-focused university has more than 300 staff on 457 visas – about 5 per cent of its total – with more in the pipeline.
“They’re really not people flipping burgers,” Dr Spence told Fairfax Media. “If you are building world-class expertise in a cutting-edge area of science, you’re probably going to need to draw from a gene pool larger than 23 million.”
He pointed to Sydney University’s quantum computing unit, led in part by quantum physicist Michael Biercuk, who came to Australia on a 457 visa from the US in 2010.
Professor Biercuk estimated about a fifth of his fellow researchers were on 457s, and were hired straight out of their PhD program without any commercial “work experience”.
“Right now, on a strict interpretation [of the new law], we are not able to hire people who are coming out of their PhDs internationally,” he said. “We really need to sort out this issue.”
Without specialist hires from overseas, the capacity of the much-admired Sydney Nanoscience Hub would be kneecapped, Professor Biercuk said.
“Much of the strategic investment that Australia has made will be kind of wasted. We won’t have the technical staff to drive the work forward,” he said.
Fairfax Media put questions to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on Wednesday but did not receive a response by deadline.
Astronomer and physicist Alan Duffy of Melbourne’s Swinburne University, who arrived on a 457 visa eight years ago to work on a flagship astronomical facility in Perth, said he hoped the matter was a bureaucratic oversight.
“We’re all a little alarmed but still hopeful this can be clarified,” he said. “We want the world’s best for this country, and that means it is a global search.”
The Group of Eight was also concerned about the message the move sent to the academic community worldwide.
In his letter to Mr Turnbull, Go8 chairman Peter Hoj said “the mere suggestion of Australia clamping down on academic mobility into Australia would be extremely damaging to academic recruitment in Australia”.
Dr Spence reminded the Prime Minister that recruitment of world-class talent was crucial to the government’s oft-touted innovation agenda.
“At one point [that] was very important to Malcolm Turnbull,” Dr Spence said. “I’d like to believe that it’s still important to Malcolm Turnbull.”