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Fair treatment for international students in Canberra

I seek leave to make a brief statement in relation to the petition that I have presented.


Madam Speaker, I have presented a petition signed by 508 Canberra residents calling on this Assembly to urge the ACT Government to allow international students who were enrolled in an ACT educational institution on or before 29 June 2018 to apply for ACT nomination for a 190 visa under the guidelines that were in place before this date.

Many of these students, Madam Speaker, find themselves in very difficult circumstances. I’ve spoken with a number of them, all of whom carefully chose to migrate to the ACT because of what they understood about the territory’s Skilled Nominated visa scheme. This understanding was based upon information provided on the government’s migration website and also in government-sponsored promotional material.

In previous years, these students would have been fine. As the figures and charts in the government’s recently released discussion paper make clear, the 190 visa scheme has functioned quite well in the past, attracting roughly the same number of intending migrants each year as the number of sponsored visas allotted to the territory by the Department of Home Affairs.

This changed dramatically in 2017–18, Madam Speaker. Again referencing the government’s own discussion paper, in the first nine months of the last financial year, international student commencements in vocational education in Canberra jumped 700 per cent. And the University of Canberra reported a nearly 30 per cent increase in international student commencements in 2018. In short, the ACT has had a large influx of international students since 1 July 2017.

The government’s discussion paper considers a number of possible reasons for this influx, but from my personal conversations with many of these students, they have assured me that they were specifically attracted to the territory’s Skilled Nominated visa scheme and its implied assurance that they would be able to apply for nomination after only 12 months of residence and completing a Certificate III or higher qualification. From their perspective, the ACT Government specifically targeted them through its advertising and promoted this potential migration opportunity.

The problem is that this promotion worked too well, and by the time the ACT Government abruptly closed the scheme to many intending migrants on 29 June this year, nearly 1,100 applications for territory sponsorship had been filed despite there being only 800 visas available.

It needs to be pointed out, Madam Speaker, that these students understand how migration works, and they certainly understand that there are no guarantees in the system. Their primary concern is specifically that they were lured into moving to Canberra even after the government understood that the demand for ACT-nominated visas was surging.

I cannot say for sure what the government knew when, but what we know from public reporting appears troubling, Madam Speaker. Migration Lawyer Nicholas Houston told SBS that he met with ACT Government officials in November last year and warned them that thousands of students were already moving to Canberra in the hope of securing territory nomination. I quote him, ‘But they [the government] kept advertising the program[,] and hundreds and hundreds more kept coming … If they had pulled the plug on the program back then, all these students wouldn’t have been in the situation that they are now’.

A ministerial brief sent to the Chief Minister in April, and released under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that Mr Barr had been informed that the scheme was oversubscribed. Nevertheless, the government agency responsible for the program still told migration agents on 13 June that there would be no changes to the application and assessment processes introduced on 1 July last year. Thirteen days later, the scheme was abruptly closed to most would-be applicants.

The nearly 300 extra intending migrants who had filed their applications by this date have been grandfathered into this year’s visa allotment. This is a good and decent thing, Madam Speaker. But this still leaves a large group of international students who find themselves in limbo. The government’s discussion paper acknowledges the impact that this mess has had on these students, and the government has promised a review that will better manage both expectations and demand in future. None of this, however, will help the students caught in the middle.

As I mentioned before, these students made a conscious and what they thought was informed choice to move to Canberra to study. Many of those I’ve spoken with even gave up good jobs elsewhere to do so. They know that visas are capped by the Department of Home Affairs. They know that the success of an application for nomination is not guaranteed.

What they don’t understand, Madam Speaker, is why the ACT Government kept encouraging them to come when the data showed that the 190 visa scheme was already being overwhelmed. Why, when the Chief Minister knew that applications had surged well ahead of places, did his government continue to tell migration agents that there would be no changes to the application and assessment processes?

If these students had been given the correct information, they would have been able to make genuinely informed choices. They may well have chosen to invest thousands of dollars into studying elsewhere. They may have held onto good-paying jobs instead. They may also have still chosen to migrate to Canberra, but they would have done so with their eyes wide open to the reality of the situation. Instead, they feel that they were misled.

And so they petition this Assembly to urge the ACT Government to allow them the same opportunity that was given to earlier applicants: to be grandfathered into this year’s allotment of visas. This will certainly cut into the 2018–19 migration scheme numbers, but these students feel it would be the just and honest thing. A review will do them no good. Future fixes will be too late for many of them.

Canberrans understand that fair treatment for all must include our visitors and students from afar. They deserve so much more than how the ACT Government has treated them.

Madam Speaker, on behalf of these students and other concerned Canberra residents, I commend this petition, with its 508 signatures, to the Assembly.

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