Catch-485: How the Skilled Occupation List left thousands in limbo
The 485 visa was meant to help international students caught out by the 2010 changes to the Skilled Occupation List. But so many have been waiting for far too long. Sumisha Naidu reports.
ON May 15, 2010, Sarah* knew what the next few years of her life looked like. She would graduate in eight months from the University of Melbourne with a degree in Media and Communications. Then she would apply for permanent residency (PR) so she could live and work in Australia freely. After all, she fulfilled the minimum requirements – she had studied for two years at an Australian institution for an occupation that was on the Migration Occupations in Demand List (MODL).
Getting here and fulfilling those requirements hadn’t been easy. She had to find approximately $70,000 to fund her education, money she sourced from her parents and the Malaysian government through a study loan. But Sarah felt the cost was worth it – it was an investment in her future. In Australia, she could get access to “some of the best universities in the southern hemisphere”. Her study loan could then be worked off once she acquired PR – much faster than her parents ever could back in Malaysia.
But on May 16, 2010, any plans Sarah may have had for her future disintegrated. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship announced they would be refining the MODL, renaming it the Skilled Occupation List. This new list was much shorter, as the department had culled 219 occupations off the list – including Sarah’s.
Sarah now found herself ineligible for PR and without a plan.
But there was one reprieve. The immigration department would provide affected graduates with “generous transitional arrangements”- a chance to apply for Temporary Graduate Skilled 485 Visas using the old list instead. These visas would let students like Sarah work or study in Australia for a further 18 months.
For Sarah, it wasn’t ideal – but it was something. So she applied, hoped for the best, and started to draw up a new plan.
“But what about those of us who have been here for years?”
Sarah is one of 46,400 international students who had their plans for permanent residency derailed by the new Skilled Occupation List (SOL). At the time, then Immigration Minister Chris Evans said the changes were necessary to “fix” Australia’s distorted education and migration systems.
The opposition was highly critical, declaring Rudd’s government hadn’t thought “some of the transition issues through properly”, and that international education, the government’s third-largest export, would suffer.
The Liberal Party’s fighting words proved true. In the year that followed, overall new international student enrolments would decline by 9.3 per cent. The government responded quickly, commissioning the first ever strategic review of the student visa program in November 2010, the Knight Review. On September 22, 2011, all 41 recommendations from the Knight Review were accepted – including a proposal for a fast-tracked post study visa that would allow international students to work here for two to four years upon graduation regardless of the SOL. Universities were jubilant. This was just what Australia needed to regain one of its most lucrative sources of income.
But the graduates who were affected by the changes that had, in part, prompted the Knight Review weren’t as impressed. Stephanie Lok had been studying in Melbourne for eight years before she was taken off the SOL.
“The changes are great for new international students,” she says “But what about those of us who have been here for years?”
“I don’t think it’s honest”
As a migration agent at the free International Student Legal Advice Clinic, Margaret Andoh-Okai knows all about the migration woes of international students. She says the students she meets have often borrowed money from different sources to fund their education, usually with the hopes of permanent residency and a better life than their home country can provide. So when the immigration department moved the goal posts on these students last year, Margaret was not impressed.
“I feel that encouraging students to come to Australia, indicating there’s an opportunity for them to stay here permanently and then changing the SOL when they have already arrived is very disruptive to the students and I don’t think it’s honest,” she says.
Australian Federation for International Students spokeswoman, Wesa Chau, agrees, saying the government can’t expect students not to take advantage of policies they themselves put in place.
Economics graduate Kishore* says having the list changed on him in his final year was a disappointing ordeal.
“This was quite a frustrating and stressful experience as my future plans were left hanging,” he says.
“I had no intention to go back to my home country [when the list changed].”
Sylvia Liu, whose occupation was taken off the SOL in her final year as well, agrees. But she says she now understands that the Australian government was doing what was best for the nation.
One thing still confuses her though.
“Shouldn’t the changes have applied to the people wishing to come here…not the people who were here already?”
“Students were supposed to be studying, not preparing for permanent residence.”
Dr Bob Birrell, the co-director of the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, says students like Sylvia were never guaranteed permanent residency.
“Students were supposed to be studying, not preparing for permanent residence so I don’t think they have any basis for complaint,” says the man who has served as advisor to Australian governments on immigration policies.
The government, he says, has been in the practice of changing the selection rules repeatedly over the years and they will continue to do so as and when they see fit.
Dr Birrell, who once wrote that mass migration was creating social divisions in Australia, now worries that the “tens and thousands” of people on bridging visas, including those who applied for 485 visas when the SOL was changed, will be competing with locals for entry-level positions.
“My concern was that they are competing in semi-skilled, low-skilled entry level job markets and that’s a problem from the point of view of young domestics who are seeking to find employment in those entry-level job markets,” he says.
“It’s a catch-22 situation for these graduates.”
Commerce graduate Ben, who had to apply for a 485 visa when the SOL changed, does not agree with Birrell’s view. How could he be competing with locals for jobs when no one would even consider hiring him?
Ben had applied for the 485 visa as soon as he found out permanent residency was no longer an option for him. Having studied here for three years, he just wanted to work so he could start earning back some of the money his family had put toward his education here. But almost a year after applying, the visa still hadn’t been approved.
This wouldn’t have been a problem had Ben found a job. As an immigration department spokesman points out, the bridging visa he was on granted him full working rights. But Ben recalls how countless interviews would end abruptly as soon as he mentioned he was still on a bridging visa. In the end, the only job he could secure was waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant for minimum wage, with dozens of other graduates in the same boat.
The senior manager of policy at the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce, Andrew Rimington, says he understands why most employers are reluctant to hire students on bridging visas like Ben’s.
“If an application fails for whatever reason, you can understand the hesitancy or risk that may be associated with that,” he says.
But Mr Rimington had been under the impression that the processing time for 485 visas was only three months.
“I thought it was a more streamlined process than that but obviously it’s not,” he says, adding that he will raise the issue with their national chamber and the Minister for Tertiary Education Chris Evans (who ironically was the former immigration minister).
It’s a catch-22 situation for these graduates, says Mr Rimington. They need to be working in a relevant field while they’re waiting, he says, otherwise, employers are unlikely to hire them when their visas are finally approved as they will be harder to induct into the work place. But at the same time, he knows employers may not hire them while they wait either.
“Obviously the solution to this dilemma is to ensure the immigration department processes the student visa applications [in a shorter time],” he concludes.
“A useless bridging visa which made me unemployable.”
A spokesman for the immigration department states that the “published service standard” for processing subclass 485 visas is 12 months.
But students like Kishore have been waiting for 18 months now. Perhaps this should come as no surprise considering there are 53,000 pending Temporary Graduate Skilled 485 Visas applications as of September 2011, according to the immigration department’s statistics.
“The department is assigning additional resources to the subclass 485 processing teams and expects to improve processing in 2011 to 2012,” the spokesman says.
But after a year of waiting tables, Ben felt like he couldn’t wait any longer. Two months ago, he forfeited his application for a 485 visa and left Australia.
“Being unable to apply for permanent residency was a waste, but insignificant when compared to the time I lost waiting around with what is basically a useless bridging visa which made me unemployable,” he says.
Sarah, who applied for a 485 visa in November 2010, suffered a similar fate. She job hunted for eight months before applying for a further loan from the Malaysian government to complete her Honours year while she waits for her 485 visa to be approved.
Others have more positive tales. Eugene*, for example, says he found employment despite being on a bridging visa because he had skills in a niche area of marketing.
Kishore says he managed to find work in an occupation on the SOL (but unrelated to his studies), which means he will be eligible to apply for permanent residency once – or rather, if – his 485 visa is approved.
“There is a bit of uncertainty because the the Australian government can still revoke my application for TR,” he says.
“But I’ve come this far, I don’t really mind, I’ve tried my best.”
For the other thousands of students who were affected by the 2010 changes, there is always a chance that the Skilled Occupation List will change again. Maybe this time in their favour.
*Names of students have been changed.