Australia tightens skilled migration rules

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia tightened its migration rules today in favor of English speakers and professionals, saying the country has been attracting too many hairdressers and cooks and too few doctors and engineers.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans blamed the overrepresentation of lower skilled immigrants on a system put in place by Prime Minister John Howard, whose government lost power in 2007 elections.

“Under the Howard government, we had a lot of cooks, a lot of hairdressers coming through,” Evans told reporters. “We were taking hairdressers from overseas in front of doctors and nurses — it didn’t make any sense.”

The new rules will favor applicants who already have job offers over those who merely have qualifications or who are studying. The measures are expected to dampen enrollment in Australian colleges by foreign students hoping to settle in the country.

Numbers of foreign students enrolled in Australian colleges exploded in 2001, when the government changed migration rules to allow them to apply for permanent residency while studying. Until then, skilled workers had to apply offshore for visas to fill jobs from a list of more than 100 trades and professions that were suffering shortages in Australia.

Australia continues to have a shortage of accountants, partly because many of the 40,000 accountants who immigrated in the past five years did not have the professional or language skills to find work, Evans said.

“You’ve got to say if they don’t have the English-language skills, don’t have the trade skills and can’t get a job, then really they should not be eligible for permanent residency,” Evans said.

The new policy will favor applicants who score highly in an English language test. Moreover, immigrant numbers in certain jobs could be capped for the first time. The government has not identified which jobs.

Because of the higher standards and a revised list of which skilled workers are in short supply, 20,000 visa applications will be scrapped and their application fees totaling 14 million Australian dollars ($12 million) refunded, he said.

The new list will be made public mid-year and focus on high-skilled professions.

Foreign students enrolled in courses for professions that are cut from the list will be given 18 months after graduation to find work in their field, or will have to leave Australia.

Evans conceded that the new rules would cost the education sector, which has rapidly grown into Australia’s fourth largest export industry and reaps AU$12 billion a year from foreign student fees. But he said high-quality universities would continue to prosper.

Monash University social scientist Andrew Markus, an expert on migration policy, said student enrollments would fall because more than 70 percent of foreign students in Australia planned to settle here permanently.

Foreign student numbers in Australia have gone from 150,000 in 2002 to almost 400,000 last year, with India recently overtaking China as the largest source of applicants.

Indians accounted for almost one in four foreign students in Australia last year, but Australian universities expect enrollments to fall 30 percent this year because of a spate of violent crimes against Indians in Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city.

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