Australian Immigration and Citizenship Minister Mr. Chris Bowen addressed this evening the Australia India Business Council on the occasion of its Silver Jubilee. Congratulations to the AIBC on 25 years of work to promote closer economic and business ties between Australia and India, he said.
International chambers of commerce and business councils play a vital role in Australia’s trade performance and building key person-to-person links across international boundaries to the benefit of both nations. This Business Council is a particularly important one because business links between India and Australia are particularly important, said a Ministry media release today.
India, of course, has always been one of the world’s great civilisations. In 1947 India took its rightful place as one of the world’s great nations. And now, to complete the trifecta, India is taking its place as one of the world’s great economies.
And as India undergoes this transformation, your business council plays a key role in fostering and furthering our already deep people-to-people links.
The governments of both India and Australia are committed to deepening our relationship. Since 2008, there have been 21 visits by Australian ministers to India.
However, it is not just governments that will forge the close ties that are essential for the wellbeing of both nations, but people. I believe what unites us most is not our joint membership at the Commonwealth of Nations or our common lore of cricket, but the close links forged by the greatest cross-cultural and economic development program of all: immigration.
I’m proud of the fact that India is the third largest source of permanent migrants to Australia. Every single permanent migrant from India to Australia is an ambassador for both nations. Every one of the 350,000 Australians of Indian heritage is a driver of our close relations.
Equally important is temporary migration, particularly students.
Indians studying in Australia are important for our educational institutions and our economy. But perhaps more importantly, having thousands of young Indians furthering their education in Australia means that – if we get it right – they will go through life as firm friends of Australia with fond memories of their Australian education and all the positive implications for our long term bilateral relations that implies. I’ll talk more about Indian students in Australia in a few moments.
In 2010, Australia invested over $407 billion in India in a range of sectors, including manufacturing, telecommunications, hotels, minerals and food processing, oil and gas, and in the automotive sector.
While merchandise trade accounts for the major part of this figure, our role in providing services is growing. In 2010, Australia exported $3.1 billion worth of services to India, with 84 per cent of those exports in the education sector. New prospects continue to emerge, in areas like ICT, biotechnology, tourism, health, film, and insurance.
As you would expect with such a significant economic relationship for Australia, India features prominently in our skilled migration program.
Tonight I want to talk about the thinking behind the reforms to our skilled migration program undertaken by the Government over the past few years and the direction of the program as it becomes more responsive to Australia’s economic needs.
I would first like to discuss recent initiatives in the student visa space that Senator Chris Evans and I announced following Michael Knight’s review of the student visa regime.
Education sector links
As I have said, education presents one of the most valuable opportunities for both countries to lay the foundation for an enduring partnership at an economic, social and political level. It presents enormous opportunities to deepen collaboration between institutions across the education and training sectors, business and industry, and our governments.
There’s no doubt that India is a key partner for Australia in its international education engagement activities. Indeed, Australia has a long history of engagement with India in international education dating back to the Colombo plan of the 1950s.
In April 2010, Australia and India entered into a Joint Ministerial Statement to deepen the cooperative education relationship between the two nations. This Statement confirms our joint commitment to expand the current Education Exchange Program to achieve greater cooperation between the two countries’ education and training sectors.
The Joint Statement has been operationalised by both governments through the establishment of the Australia-India Education Council, the Bureau of Vocational Education and Training Cooperation, the new Australia-India Higher Education Exchange and the Shadowing Faculty Exchange pilot program.
Building on this, both countries’ Education Ministers agreed to a Memorandum of Cooperation on Student Mobility and Welfare, which puts special emphasis on measures to enhance the safety and welfare of students in both countries and strengthen the monitoring of education agent activities.
Given the strong cultural and economic value of our education links, it was with great concern that the Government observed problems emerging in Australia’s international education space a few years ago. In the rush to grow, some providers lost their focus on quality.
Courses geared towards migration outcomes emerged and it became clear that quality assurance mechanisms were struggling to cope. Individual student experiences suffered as a result. This had the effect of risking the benefits of quality education in our bi-lateral relationships and tarnishing the reputation of a great number of quality education providers.
Clearly action was required and the Government has moved address these issues. We adjusted our visa settings to respond to these concerns. We took action to introduce new national regulators and a tougher re-registration process to ensure quality in the education sector. We also introduced new legislation to safeguard students in the event of a provider default and good providers are also taking their role in ensuring the welfare of students more seriously.
In this context, Senator Evans and I asked Michael Knight to take a hard look at the way the Student visa program works; identify any impediments to quality, integrity and competition; and recommend measures to put the international education sector back on a sustainable growth path.
We want to grow the numbers of international students in Australia, but we want to do so within the framework of ensuring a quality experience and ensuring people coming to Australia come to undertake genuine study.
Michael Knight conducted a very comprehensive review of our student visa system and consulted very heavily throughout the education sector, including during a visit to India, as well as to China and Malaysia. The Government has decided to act on all of Mr Knight’s recommendations, with some modifications and additions.
Fundamentally, our reforms have two objectives: to enhance the integrity of Australia’s Student visa program and to strengthen the competitiveness of our international education sector.
The introduction of a new, more flexible genuine temporary entrant criterion will boost the integrity of the program by giving my department more discretion to look at a wider range of risk factors when deciding visa applications. This – together with the establishment of new national education regulation and quality assurance bodies – has provided the opportunity to start the move to what is essentially a provider-based risk management model.
That is, a model where we measure immigration risk based on an education provider’s past performance, rather than only focusing on student risk. A model where education providers have a clear incentive to take greater responsibility for their recruitment practices; a model that will support the competitiveness of quality providers and allow them to be more agile in their education offerings.
The first step in moving towards such a provider risk based framework is streamlined visa processing for students enrolled with universities. But let me be clear – this is not a free ride. In return, the universities must accept greater responsibility for selecting genuine students.
We also recognise that there are high-quality, low immigration risk providers across all education sectors. That’s why we are looking at ways to apply this principle more broadly through the fundamental review of the Student visa risk management framework – the Assessment Level review – which is due to report by mid-2012.
The Government is also introducing reforms specifically targeted at post-graduate students, including streamlined processing and enhanced work rights. These measures recognise that high quality human capital is essential to Australia’s ability to innovate and that the brightest students and researchers are highly prized in many countries.
We want to encourage the cream of talent emerging from our universities to stay on and contribute.
While international education provides a foundation for long-term people-to-people links, it’s our skilled migration program that provides a more immediate gateway to building closer ties between India and Australia. There is no question that India is a major part of our skilled migration program. India is now consistently one of the top three source countries for skilled permanent migration and temporary skilled workers. Over the last two decades, 223,000 Indian nationals have arrived as permanent migrants to Australia, with over three-quarters of those in the skilled stream of the program.
It is a very positive indicator of our growing economic relationship that India has become such a substantial part of our skilled migration program.
Indian migrants are both welcome and successful in Australia, but their significant role in our skilled migration program, now and in the future, is not because they are Indian. Rather it is because they are skilled individuals who best suit Australia’s economic needs and consequently will have the best chance of success here in Australia. The fact is that our skilled migration program is designed not to favour any one country, other than Australia.
This Government has undertaken some serious reform to our skilled migration program over the past few years, with some further key developments announced for implementation in the year ahead. Some of the key reforms include:
· rebuilding public confidence in the temporary skilled worker visa, known as the 457 visa;
· introducing flexible State Migration Plans to address the unique skills needs of different regions; and
· overhauling the independent skilled route, by focusing on key occupations and implementing a new points test last July.
The guiding principle to these reforms is to better enable our skilled migration program to meet Australia’s ongoing – and often changing – skills needs. That is, to have a skilled migration program that is responsive to our economic needs and complementing efforts to develop our domestic skills base. Put simply, Australia’s permanent skilled migration program must be shaped by Australia’s needs rather than by the desire of prospective migrants to come to Australia.
In this year’s Budget, I announced a measured increase in the skilled migration program for 2011-12, up to 125,850 places, in response to the economic outlook for unemployment and growth over the year ahead. Setting a migration program is always a matter of balance between labour demands and the need to maintain opportunities for Australians.
Addressing short term skills shortages
Of course, the temporary skilled migration program, the 457 visa, continues to play a vital role in supporting business and meeting immediate skills gaps. Indian citizens now make up the second largest group to use the program, behind the United Kingdom.
These skilled workers are employed across a great variety of industries and work in many different occupations. The program has become international best practice in facilitating access to skilled labour.
Average processing times for 457 visa applications are also 30 per cent lower than they were in 2006-07 – down from 31 to 22 days. We aim to cut processing times even further. The new $10 million 457 visa centre in Brisbane will make substantial progress in improving 457 visa processing times. Our aim is to see 457 visas processed within 10 days.
It is important not to lose sight of the intent of our reforms to the 457 program. Overseas workers must be protected and employers using the program do carry obligations in this respect. The program also has to complement opportunities for Australians and not adversely impact on Australian wages and conditions.
Today I can announce the introduction of a new accreditation scheme for 457 visa sponsors from next Monday, 7 November that recognises businesses with an excellent track record of compliance with workplace and migration laws. This new scheme will give accredited sponsors access to priority processing for all future nomination and visa applications – resulting in the fastest possible processing times for those businesses. Accredited businesses will also qualify for double the regular sponsorship approval period, from three to six years.
Businesses will need to meet benchmarks to qualify for accredited status, including ensuring at least three-quarters of their domestic workforce is Australian; and being an active 457 visa sponsor for the past three years, with at least 30 overseas workers on 457 visas over the past 12 months.
This will continue to ensure that the 457 program is responsive to the economic cycle and provides a flexible avenue for employers to fill immediate and short-term skill vacancies, while maintaining opportunities and conditions for Australian workers.
Employer sponsored visas: the flagship program
To make the permanent skills migration program more responsive to labour market demand, the permanent employer sponsored options have assumed greater significance in the skilled program. These categories take up between 35 and 40 per cent of the program over the last three years, compared to around 15 per cent previously. Our research shows that employer sponsored migrants have excellent labour market outcomes, with employment rates of 99 per cent, more than 90 per cent of which is skilled employment.
I recently asked my department to review the employer sponsored category with a view to making it more streamlined, in particular looking at the transition from a temporary to a permanent visa. I expect to be in a position to say more about the outcomes of the review in coming months, with implementation by July next year.
The introduction of SkillSelect is the final and most significant step in the Government’s skilled migration reforms.
SkillSelect will start from 1 July 2012 and apply to independent and state sponsored visas. That’s almost 60 per cent of the Skills program – or around 72,000 visas. It will be a major change in the way this program is managed.
There are two parts to SkillSelect – an internal process to select migrants and an external database that employers can also use.
The first part of the program is a two-stage process for the Government to select migrants.
Prospective migrants will initially submit their claims for migration through an Expression of Interest.
The Government will then invite people to apply for a visa if the points test identifies that they have the best combination of skills and attributes for Australia. This will ensure that the limited Skilled Migration Program places are allocated to the best possible candidates.
Through SkillSelect we won’t just accept the first applicant through the door – but the applicant who has the most to offer Australia.
Of particular interest to business is the SkillSelect external database that will contain information from the Expressions of Interest lodged with the department. This free, searchable database will allow employers to connect with, and if suitable, to sponsor through our employer sponsored programs skilled people interested in migrating to Australia. This is particularly useful for small businesses as it provides easy access to a database of skilled workers making the search easy and recruitment costs low.
In conclusion, can I thank you again for the work you do in forging business and trade links between Australia and India.
My eyes were first opened to the beauty of India, the beauty of the Indian people, and the massive potential of the Indian economy when I backpacked through India back in 1998. It was the beginning of my long standing interest in all things India.
Better links between Australia and India are something that will always find my support. It is important that our two great Commonwealth democracies never lose touch, and more particularly build even closer ties. With our strong migration program from India, with the strong joint commitment of both governments, and with the work you do, I’m confident that’s exactly what we’re doing.