Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 July 2024

Regulations and Determinations

Migration Amendment (Graduate Visas) Regulations 2024; Disallowance

5:50 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I, and also on behalf of Senator Shoebridge, move:

That the Migration Amendment (Graduate Visas) Regulations 2024, made under the Migration Act 1958, be disallowed [F2024L00748].

These regulations are yet another cruel blow to international students from the Albanese government and yet another example of their absolute disregard for the wellbeing of international students. These regulations concern the 485 temporary graduate visa, which provides the opportunity for international students who have recently graduated from Australian educational institutions to remain here to live and to work temporarily, following the completion of their studies. These regulations reduce the length of stay permitted under this visa and also close the subclass 476 visa, which provides engineering graduates with the chance to work in skilled occupations in this country for up to 18 months.

Of most concern, however, is the government's decision to reduce the age limit of these visas from 50 years to 35 years. The government went some way to amending this really bad policy when it backflipped on its previous position and created a carve-out so that PhD and master's by research students were not subject to this age reduction, but bachelor's and master's by coursework students will still not be eligible for a temporary graduate visa, even those who are graduating this semester, if they are older than 35 years. This just shows the complete lack of thought and consideration that is put into devising these policies, when the government has to backtrack on a big chunk of this policy after having announced it. It's a classic example of policy on the run.

The Labor government has made this decision with no regard for current students who have applied for, commenced and, in some cases, essentially completed their studies. Students who enrolled in their courses before May this year did so expecting that they would be eligible for a temporary graduate visa, as long as they were 50 years of age or younger upon graduation. Many had planned to stay in Australia but are now no longer eligible to do so, and their lives have been totally up-ended. Many students completing their studies this semester will only receive their completion letters in mid-July, two weeks after the cut-off date for their applications to apply under the old rules. Students who have made plans for making their lives here—for employment, for housing—now have their futures entirely up in the air.

Prior to these changes, any international student under the age of 50 was able to remain temporarily in Australia to work following the completion of their studies. Now, students between the ages of 35 and 50 in coursework degrees are no longer eligible. Even the students who are still able to access the temporary graduate visa, where their universities have not issued early completion letters, have now been plunged into employment uncertainty. Students who have contacted me have reported extreme stress, extreme anxiety and fear over their futures. One student said: 'I don't know why such changes are being made suddenly by the government that puts everyone under pressure. I'm sure you're all feeling the same pressure as us, as we all come to know of the changes at the same time.' The student goes on to say, 'Everyone is under pressure at the moment, and the students have totally lost their focus.' Instead of preparing for final exams, students have been spending their time organising petitions, contacting Home Affairs and pleading with their universities to do something. When all this failed, one student simply said, 'We don't know what to do now,' and expressed feeling 'completely numb'.

To make matters worse, the government introduced these regulations on the last sitting day before they came into effect, leaving no room to debate or disallow this before it started. Not only have the recent visa changes sent a clear message to current international students that they are not welcome but the government's message is also being heard by prospective students who no longer see Australia as a welcoming, supportive place to study and are reconsidering their decision to even apply to universities here.

Treating international students with such disrespect and callousness is really appalling. Once again, this has outed the Albanese government's bid to try and win this despicable race to the bottom with the Liberals on who can be the worst for people of colour, and they have no concern for who is harmed on the way. This decision and the last-minute, cruel way in which it has been introduced has done nothing but place extreme pressure and stress on international students and increase pressure on universities as well as some push to provide completion letters ahead of time so their students are not disadvantaged.

These regulations are yet another example of the Labor government's atrocious treatment of international students. They have thrown so many lives into limbo and caused so much angst. It is yet another example of bad policy, and it should be scrapped. What do you have against international students? They pay exorbitant fees. They work in jobs no-one else takes up. They are exploited. And all you want to do is kick them out and stop them from coming here. And perhaps it is because they are people of colour and they can't vote. Anyone who cares about international students should vote for the Greens' disallowance.

5:57 pm

Photo of David ShoebridgeDavid Shoebridge (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I join my colleague Senator Faruqi in moving the disallowance of the Migration Amendment (Graduate Visas) Regulations 2024, which is designed to target and harm international students in this country. It's part of an ugly race to the bottom that the Labor Party is involved in, with the coalition, to see who can be crueller on issues of migration and asylum seeker rights. At the moment, Labor seems to be just touching out the coalition on that race to be the most cruel. Perhaps one of the worst things about this particular debate is that we've seen both the coalition and Labor engage in this process of trying to blame migration—in this case, international students—for crises they've created themselves, for a housing crisis that's been created through both parties' refusal to invest in public housing and end the tax concessions that are putting housing out of the reach of so many. We've seen a lack of core investment for over a decade in core services by the coalition, and then for both Labor and the coalition to join in this rhetoric of trying to blame every problem, many of which they've created themselves, on people who have come to this country from other parts of the planet, is a pretty obscene thing to watch.

There's the latest attack on international students. Labor says they're pressing with this because it is somehow associated with the housing crisis. That's Labor's approach to what they say is a housing crisis: don't build more public housing; don't remove the tax breaks that keep housing out of reach of people but try to scapegoat international students here. It's pretty ugly politics from Labor, and it's been jumped on, exaggerated and highlighted by the coalition who, I think, want to run the next election as some kind of ugly contest of cruelty and scapegoating against migrants in this country. The Greens won't join in on that.

This temporary graduate subclass visa, which has been so radically changed by the government, was a way of allowing international students who come here to study to work temporarily in Australia following the completion of their studies. These regulations are designed to make that next to impossible for many international students. Perhaps the worst change is reducing the upper age limit from 50 to 35 years. That is striking at the heart of the plans of thousands and thousands of people who came to this country in good faith thinking they could complete their studies and then, having completed their studies, gain critical skills by working in an Australian workplace and also gain some economic independence and pay off, in many cases, the thousands and thousands of dollars they've spent on getting the education in the first place.

It was a fair bargain that was offered to international students. That fairness has been ripped away by the Albanese government. I'm sure the idea in the Albanese cabinet, when they discussed this, was that they could perhaps beat up on migrants to gain a few votes from Peter Dutton and engage in this grubby race to the bottom—I'm sure that was the discussion in the cabinet. I'm sure that Labor thought that they were very clever in targeting people who can't vote, but I think they've failed to understand that the community in Australia looks beyond those. There are millions and millions of Australians who see what's happening. They see their friends, their colleagues, their fellow students and their workmates being harmed by this. Their friends and their community are being harmed by this.

Every week my office hears from distressed international students who are telling me and anyone else who'll listen that they've been misled by this government. They were told to apply under one set of rules—and paid tens and tens of thousands of dollars under one set of rules—only to be harmed at the last minute by Labor literally ripping the rug from under them.

International students contribute some $36 billion to the Australian community. They're one of the largest exports, if you can call it that, that Australia has. This visa change will have far-reaching implications. It will also drive division between Australia and many communities in the region. I know that I've spoken with people from the Pakistani diaspora who feel targeted by this, people from the Bangladeshi diaspora who feel targeted by this and people from the broader Indian diaspora who feel targeted by this. They feel like they're being singled out by this government, and that's because they are.

I want to share with you one letter that we got. This was a letter from Curtin University. They said: 'Curtin University has more than 7,000 international students from diverse countries including Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, the Philippines and Colombia. Most of the postgraduate students are international and most are over 35 years of age. Many older students move with their families and need time post study to allow their children to complete key schooling milestones. Students have also been here during the cost-of-living crisis, meaning their expenses have been greater than expected. Previously students expected they'd be able to recoup some of their expenses through a period of working here after study. This period of working also adds value to their study through Australian work experience.' Is it only the Greens who can read this kind of clear submission that's coming from the university sector? Has nobody else read these letters? They've been given to every senator. Every senator has been provided with a copy of them.

Of course, the Greens believe there should be a very large influx of public funding into our universities so our universities aren't so reliant on international students. But the Greens also recognise the benefit that international students bring to this community. We recognise that these thousands and thousands of students came here expecting a fair deal. That fairness has been rubbed out by this.

Another letter from a constituent said: 'International students contribute a great deal to our campus, to our course and to the economy and society of Western Australia. With the announcement of these proposed changes and the uncertainty surrounding them, our students are currently in a state of extreme distress, and the university has made additional counselling and other services available to them'. I'll just stop there. Isn't anyone in the government or the coalition concerned that policy changes are causing so much stress to these students, members of our community, that universities are having to put in additional counselling and other services to deal with it? Is no-one else concerned by this?

The letter goes on: 'Students feel betrayed, having planned years of their lives around one set of rules, and are now in a state of shock and grief that the rules have changed and their plans will suddenly disappear. They expected to gain a qualification and work experience in Australia that they could take back to contribute to their own countries. Many will not be able to complete their degrees if they do not have the opportunity for the post-study employment that enables them to pay off their debt that is often well over A$50,000. Many of our students are from low-income countries. They've made financial sacrifices to study here and, in some cases, have given up jobs and homes. They've also been here during the cost-of-living crisis, meaning their expenses have been greater than expected. They now face the very real prospect of serious indebtedness with no prospects for earning the kind of income they require to pay down the debt. They are worried for themselves and their families.'

This is the reality of these changes. That's why, together with my colleague Senator Faruqi, we're moving this disallowance motion today. If you believe in fairness—if you believe in even just sticking to the deals you offered to thousands and thousands of people who came to this country looking for their education and looking to secure their economic and their professional futures—I would urge you to support this disallowance.

6:06 pm

Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

The Minister representing the Minister for Education, Senator Watt, belled the cat in the Senate yesterday, when he said:

… we have seen a massive growth in international education over the last couple of years in Australia, and that is putting unsustainable pressure on the amount of migration that we are receiving in this country at a time when people are experiencing cost-of-living pressures and very real housing pressures.

The government's failure to manage Australia's international education sector with the requisite certainty and fairness is causing economic harm to Australian universities, private higher education providers, English language course providers and the vocational education and training, or VET, sector. After opening the floodgates to international students, the government covertly implemented policies which discriminated against regional and smaller universities and private higher education and VET providers by targeting the processing of student visa applications from these institutions. While the opposition won't be supporting the Greens disallowance motion, we continue to raise serious concerns about the damage the government is causing to Australia's international education sector. This is an immigration mess of the government's own making.

6:08 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

The reality is that voting to disallow these regulations is a vote for unsustainably high migration and for a less targeted migration system. Of course, we can trust the Greens to not listen to the Australian community and to vote for unsustainably high migration while they also do everything they can to stop the government's agenda to build more homes in Australia and make it easier for Australians to get into the housing market. They continue to vote with the Liberals to block our housing measures while, at the same time, they take positions on these sorts of debates that would lead to unsustainably high migration.

You can also trust the Liberals, particularly Senator Henderson, to misrepresent my remarks in the Senate yesterday. For reasons known only to her, Senator Henderson chose close to omit some of my comments yesterday—words to the effect that the pressure on our migration system and our migration numbers that is caused by the explosion in international student numbers is a direct result of the broken migration system and the broken international education system that the Liberals and Nationals put in place when they were in government. I can't imagine why Senator Henderson forgot to include that part of my remarks to the Senate yesterday.

The changes to graduate visas in these regulations make three significant changes: firstly, they reduce the length of temporary graduate visas; secondly, they reduce the age eligibility from 50 to 35; and, thirdly, they simplify and rename the visas to make them easier to use. These were all recommendations of the migration review and of work completed by the Grattan Institute. These are key changes to help reduce migration back to sustainable, normal levels. Treasury forecast that, overall, these changes will reduce net overseas migration by 54,000 cumulatively over the next three years.

The changes also build a fairer and more targeted migration system. The migration review found that graduates are among the largest cohort of permanently temporary migrants, who are vulnerable to exploitation. These changes that we're introducing help reduce the number of people who are permanently temporary while still providing pathways for the skilled workers we need. These regulations are critical to fixing our broken migration system that we inherited from the coalition by bringing down migration levels and by building a more targeted system.

6:10 pm

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the question now be put.

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKim, I think, there being no other questions, that we were about to go to that question anyway. Are you happy to leave that motion?

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

If that's the will of the Senate, that there are no other questions, then I withdraw that motion, which will allow you to put the substantive question.

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That would seem to be a more efficient use of the time of the Senate, Senator McKim. The question before the chamber is that the motion in the name of Senators Faruqi and Shoebridge for the disallowance of the Migration Amendment (Graduate Visas) Regulations 2024 be agreed to.