Australia’s regional visa point system could be scrapped

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The landmark review into the country’s migration system said that resettlement alone is not the answer to regional Australia’s challenges.

It comes as the network representing Australia’s regional universities continues to call for greater incentives to encourage students to enrol in institutions outside of the country’s major cities, including the creation of a “simplified and dedicated” pathway to residency and additional visa points.

Currently, students receive five points towards skilled work visas if they obtain a qualification from an institution in regional Australia, which the government classifies as any area outside of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

In a submission to the Universities Accord, the Regional Universities Network suggested that international students should receive more points than they already do towards skilled visa applications if they have studied in regional Australia, with extra points for applicants who remain there.

But the new report suggests this is unlikely to be adopted by the DHA as part of the migration review, a separate plan to the Accords.

The panel behind the publication recommended that states and territories should have “greater flexibility” to determine how to allocate permanent visas and, in conjunction with this, existing regional concessions like additional visa points could be removed.

Speaking at the national press club at the end of April, Home Affairs minister Clare O’Neil said that attempts to drive population growth in regional Australia via migration have “tended not to be successful”.

“We won’t be solving that problem through the migration system, but we’re ready to work with states and territories on this problem in a cohesive manner that will provide proper support to new entrants,” she said.

In its submission to the government’s higher education review, RUN said that a “two-tier ecosystem” had emerged among Australia’s universities, with a “small handful of capital city institutions” dominating across all areas. In 2018, regional Australia hosted 3% of onshore international students.

“Densely populated urban markets and legacies of considerable financial surpluses and bequests” allow universities in Australia’s major cities to “operate at a scale that is unachievable for many other universities, particularly regional universities”, the group said in its submission. It added that international students represent a “major opportunity” for regional communities facing labour shortages.

There are other incentives in place for international students to study regional Australia, including an additional two years of post-study work rights, providing they remain in regional Australia.

Writing to a separate parliamentary inquiry at the end of 2022, La Trobe university, which has four campuses in regional areas, said that having preferential post-study work rights has been “overwhelmingly positive”, with 10% of its international cohort at its Bendigo campus, compared to 1% prior to the introduction of the policy.

“Evidence has shown that the previous schemes have worked in raising awareness of the opportunities and resulted in students choosing regional Australia,” Alec Webb, executive director of RUN told The PIE. “Obviously this is a complex area and students make choices for a myriad of reasons, of which post study work rights, or pathways to permanent residence are just two.”

RUN has called for this regional differentiation in visa policy to remain, as well as suggesting further measures that would encourage students to choose universities outside of Australia’s major cities, including creating a clear pathway to residency for those who choose to do so.

RUN asked for more government support to promote the “unique socio-cultural benefits” of studying in regional Australia.

“Awareness is a big issue,” Webb said. “You don’t know what you don’t know and sometimes when people think of Australia they only think of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.”

“Sometimes when people think of Australia they only think of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane”

Individual universities outside of Australia’s major cities also want help to encourage more international students to consider going there.

La Trobe said that a lack of international flight connections is a “key obstacle” in attracting overseas students.

“While infrastructure requires time and money, through investing in regional infrastructure it will be possible to provide a boost to both sectors,” the university wrote. “In the interim, smaller-scale solutions such as subsidised transportation or subsidised pick-up from airports to regional destinations will go a long way to removing perceived obstacles with regional destinations.”

The University of Adelaide agreed that a lack of direct international flights was a disincentive for students to travel to South Australia, in its submission to the same inquiry.

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