The role and scope of points-tested visas

Co-authored with Alan Gamlen, I have written a blog post for the COMPAS migration centre, based at Oxford University. The intended audience is British.

Australian immigration policy: The role and scope of points-tested visas

The ‘Australian-style points-based system’  has attracted a huge amount of attention in the UK debate on post-Brexit immigration policy. But how does the Australian system really work and is it something that could be easily replicated in the UK?

How do points-tested visas work in Australia?

Emerging first in Canada, points-tested visas select immigrants based on factors such as age, education, language ability, and work experience. Adopted in Australia in the 1970s, points-tested visas do not require an employer. Instead, people apply for the Skilled Independent visa or they can seek the approval of a state government and apply for one of a number of State nominated visas.

Points-tested visas in Australia work alongside occupation lists. This is how the Australian Government maintains their policy objective of selecting people with particular skills. Among the top occupations in recent years have been Software Programmers, Accountants, Registered Nurses, and Civil Engineers.

The minimum number of points for a visa is 65. It used to be the case that if someone had the minimum number of points, they would gain a visa. However a surge of demand in the mid-2000s created a lengthy application queue, with people waiting years to gain their visa.

This provoked a substantial administrative change and selection is now conducted via a ranked ordering process. The more points someone has, the more likely she is to gain a visa. At the moment, someone needs at least 80 points to gain a Skilled Independent visa. This has become a critical administrative tool to manage demand for points-tested visas.

A potential profile of someone who gains a points-tested visa is as follows: a 30 year old (30 points) Civil Engineer (eligible occupation), who has a ‘superior’ level of English (20 points), has four years of engineering work experience (5 points), has a Bachelor degree in engineering (15 points), and has no spouse (10 points). There are a number of other factors to gain points.

If invited to apply for a visa, people must pay an AUD$4,045 fee.

Are all Australian visas subject to a points-test?

No. Points-tested visas make up 63 per cent of permanent skilled visas and 43 per cent of all permanent visas granted each year in Australia (excluding humanitarian visas).

In 2019-20, there will be 68,000 points-tested visas available, out of approximately 108,000 permanent skilled visas. The remaining 40,000 permanent skilled visas require an employer and do not use the points-test. About half of those who gain a points-tested visa already live in Australia, mostly as international students or people holding temporary work permits.

In recent years, points-tested visas have been declining as a share of the overall visa mix. In 2018-19 for the first time in over two decades, the Australian Government substantially reduced the number of permanent visas available, from 190,000 to 160,000. Alongside spouse visas, points-tested visa categories were subject to the largest proportional cuts.

What are the pros and cons of points-tested visas?

The points-tested visas in Australia, Canada and New Zealand all replaced colonial-era systems that explicitly discriminated between applicants based on race and ethnicity. Points based systems are considered more fair and objective by comparison.

Points-tested visas are often thought to select ‘the best’ immigrants. By capping the number the number of points-tested visa invitations, the Australian Government creates competition in an attempt to improve the ‘quality’ of immigrants. However, critics note this is a narrow view of what constitutes a valuable contribution to a society.

The greatest challenge for policy makers regarding non-employer points-tested visas is managing both short- and long-term labour market demand from employers.

By selecting migrants based on age, language, and skills, points-tested visas are thought to promote the long-term health of a labour market by incrementally increasing the average skill level of workers. Labour market outcomes for people with points-tested visa are generally positive 18 months after gaining their visa.

However points-tested visas are difficult to administer and create unintended consequences. Policy makers can struggle with assigning points, what factors to include, and what occupations to select.

In Australia, before the system was changed to an invitation-based system, there was a widespread practice of gaining education qualifications aligning with eligible occupations. In the mid-2000s, this led to an explosion of people gaining hairdresser and accountant qualifications specifically to gain a points-tested visa without any associated employer demand. In an employer-based context, this would not have occurred.

How difficult would it be to introduce Australian-styled points-tested visas in the UK?

Introducing Australia’s points-tested visa categories would be a major change to the United Kingdom’s immigration policy system, both in terms of policy outcomes and culture.

A strong majority of non-EU immigrants to the United Kingdom currently require an employer to sponsor them. This is the case even if they are subject to an existing points-tested visa, such as the Tier 2 category. This is a major difference to Australia, where employer sponsorship and points-test visas are mutually exclusive.

In Australia, scale allows a diversity of skills to be selected. Over the decade to 2017-18, the top 10 occupations for points-tested visas accounted for fewer than half of associated visa grants. Yet in per capita terms, 68,000 permanent points-tested visas in Australia is equivalent to about 180,000 visas in the United Kingdom. This would likely lead to an immediate and sharp increase in the rate of net migration.

Finally, points-tested visa categories in Australia are one part of a broader migration-management system, including policy institutions like long-term data collection procedures, research and consultation protocols, and mechanisms for coordination across different but related policy areas. Many of these systems and habits are deeply ingrained and inseparable from culture. For example, because the media play a key role in shaping public attitudes to immigration, the outcomes of migration policy partly depend on what kinds of media reporting on immigration topics are / are not considered acceptable. Such norms are different in Australia and the UK.

Such norms are different in Australia and the UK, meaning it is difficult to simply transplant one bit of the system from one country to another. Australia has crafted the institutions above in part because it is a country of immigrants. The UK does not have the same institutional mix given its history as a major sender of emigrants, and has only relatively recently become a major receiver of immigrants.

For more information see The Migration Observatory’s recent report  The Australian points-based system: what is it and what would its impact be in the UK?

Blogs published elsewhere: Myths about the Australian horticultural labour market, and the irregular movement of people in the Indo-Pacific

I have a couple of blogs published this morning.

For the Development Policy Centre, I wrote about a new ABARES survey, showing there is no shortage of labour in the horticultural labour market. However the myth of a shortage is very strong and is resulting is poor policy decisions.

The results show that only 18 per cent of vegetable farms and 14 per cent of fruit and nut farms who recently recruited had difficulty filling vacant positions. This compares to 44 per cent for businesses across Australia. This is the best evidence to date that there is no horticultural labour shortage in Australia…

The fact that few horticultural farms have difficulty filling vacancies flies in the face of popular opinion. If you only followed media stories or political announcements, it would seem like regional Australia is beset by a massive labour shortage and that farms are struggling to attract any workers…

The new backpacker regulations that are now in place will further entrench exploitation of young migrants in the industry, exacerbate downward pressure on wages and conditions for existing workers in the industry, and undermine the SWP. There was no opposition to these changes in the Australian Parliament. The main opposition party, Labor, has increasingly raised issues of exploitation due to the precarious nature of employment for people on temporary visas, particularly backpackers. But when the opportunity arose to attempt to disallow the new regulations, nothing happened.

For the Lowy Interpreter, I wrote about how the irregular movement of people continues in our region, despite the bipartisan policy stance on asylum. Unfortunately this stance has led to a lack of engagement on very real issues such as the Rohingya refugee displacement.

Still, the irregular movement of people continues around Australia today. There are many more would-be migrants in the world than there are opportunities to migrate, and the inability to access authorised pathways generates irregular movement. To governments, people smugglers are criminals, yet in most cases, to the people they move, they are critical connections to a better life… 

The common refrain that we live in a world of porous global borders is largely a myth. Borders today are stronger than perhaps any time in human history, with many institutions deliberately designed to keep people out, such as passports, border checks, physical infrastructure, and military patrols, among other factors. In the example of Réunion Island, even in one of the most remote outposts of a G7 country, there are resources in place to enforce the border…

Yet Australia’s current approach is unilateral, with regional approaches considered nice to have but not necessary. The lacklustre Bali Process has failed to meet modest expectations and instead acts as a symbol of bureaucratic indulgence. No Australian government has entertained the idea of a reworked refugee resettlement program founded on the needs of the region, working together with countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Without Australia giving and contributing more in the region, the human cost of displacement continues to grow. 

A note on the previous blog post

I published a blog post earlier this morning which contained mistakes as I was comparing different datasets which were not apples to apples.

I have removed the blog post but just wanted to leave a note here in case there was any confusion about this. Apologies!

Cross-post: Most migrants on bridging visas aren’t ‘scammers’, they’re well within their rights

Dr. Shanthi Robertson and I have co-authored a short piece on the Conversation about bridging visas, Most migrations on bridging visas aren’t ‘scammers’, they’re well within their rights. The full article is published below.

Recent articles in the media have raised concerns about the rapid rise in migrants living and working in Australia on bridging visas, whose numbers have more than doubled in the last four years.

A bridging visa is granted to anyone who makes a visa application from within Australia. This form of visa comes into effect if the visa someone already holds expires while they’re in the country.

As of March 31, there were 229,242 people in Australia who held a bridging visa, the highest-ever figure in Australian history. A significant portion of bridging visa applicants are skilled and family migrants, often partners of Australian permanent residents and citizens.

But living on a bridging visa is a form of migration limbo as the Department of Home Affairs does not disclose how long any individual case may take to process. Migrants do not know if their application will be approved tomorrow, or if they will be waiting on a bridging visa for another year or more.

What’s more, employers and labour recruiters, especially in the horticultural industry, are taking advantage of these migrants as cheap temporary labour.

Most migrants on bridging visas aren’t ‘scammers’

Evidence is emerging that increasing numbers of migrants arriving on tourist visas are applying for humanitarian or protection visas once they’re in the country.

This is the group Kristina Keneally, the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs, refers to as “airplane people”. She criticises the Coalition for trumpeting a hard-line approach to offshore detention and “stopping the boats” when asylum seekers are arriving by other means and seeking protection onshore in increasing numbers.

This exploitation of temporary visa pathways is a growing concern and warrants investigation. But associating all bridging visas with “scammers” and “illegal migrants” misses the bigger picture of the role bridging visas play in our changing immigration regime and the inequalities they can create for migrants who are operating completely within the rules of the system.

They meet all the legal criteria for migration and are simply waiting for their applications to be processed by the Department of Home Affairs. For example, while there were 28,000 applicants for onshore asylum visas in 2017-18, there were more than 125,000 people holding a bridging visa and waiting for their permanent visa application to be finalised.

Growing wait times for partner visas

Perhaps the primary reason for the so-called “blowout” in bridging visas – as quoted in an ABC article – is simply because more legitimate applications for skilled and family migration are now made in Australia and waiting times for visa processing have increased.

Compare permanent partner visas in 2009-10 and 2017-18. There were about 53,000 applicants for partner visas in 2009-10. And there were 27,000 people waiting in the queue in June 2010.

Eight years later, there were 54,000 applicants for partner visas, but with fewer places available (39,800) and more than 80,000 people waiting in the queue. This means if you applied for a partner visa in June 2010, you were looking at about a six to eight month wait. And by June 2018, this had become around a two-year wait.

A consequence of under-resourcing in the Department of Home Affairs is that the time migrants spend living on bridging visas is increasing as the time taken to process a visa application grows. What’s more, waiting times for sponsored skilled work visas like the Employer Nomination Scheme can take up to 19 months.

Barriers to economic and social inclusion

These long waits create significant barriers to the economic and social inclusion of these migrants. One of the most significant issues is the stigma around bridging visas in the employment market. Although many of these migrants have in-demand skills, local work experience, and the strong desire to work, many Australian employers refuse to hire workers on bridging visas, leading to deskilling, exploitation and financial stress.

Long waits on bridging visas can create specific vulnerabilities for women on partner visas, making them highly dependent on their partners, and often unable to access adequate support in situations of domestic abuse.

In research conducted on the experiences of migrants on the “staggered pathway” from temporariness to permanence, migrants report being denied mobile phone contracts, personal loans or rental accommodation because of their bridging visas. Travel restrictions placed on some bridging visas also prevent migrants from travelling home to care for family members or attend family events.

Transparent and faster processing would mitigate many of the issues with bridging visas, whether for those exploiting the system or for those legitimate migrants stuck in the indefinite wait. Minimising time spent on bridging visas means onshore migrants can participate fully in both the economy and the community.

From Inside Story: the problem with HILDA

I have a short piece published on Inside Story about recent migrants and Australia’s premier social survey, HILDA. Thanks to Peter Browne for a fantastic edit and the opportunity to publish.

As the media coverage over the past week shows, HILDA — the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey — is the most important and comprehensive survey of life in Australia. Launched in 2001, it questions around 17,000 Australian each year about a wide range of topics, from household composition and income to childcare and medical costs. Worryingly, though, this rich source of information is increasingly failing to reflect Australia’s changing composition.

As a longitudinal survey, HILDA puts the same (or similar) questions to the same people each year to build a long-term picture of life in Australia. In research terms, this is a top-shelf methodology — but it’s also expensive and difficult to maintain. A lot of hard work and significant government funding goes into HILDA.

The central challenge with any survey of this type is making sure that the people being asked the questions look the same as the general population. When it was set up, HILDA’s pool of respondents reflected the Australian population of 2001; every year, as people leave Australia or arrive, it has become a little less representative of the population as a whole.

The team that runs HILDA at the Melbourne Institute is acutely aware of this. A 2006 research paper estimated that by 2011, HILDA’s tenth year, the percentage of recent arrivals falling outside the original sample would be about 6.6 per cent. After fifteen years, this was expected to be 8.3 per cent. HILDA attempted to solve this problem with a top-up of the sample in Wave 11 of the survey, designed to ensure a good representation of the Australian population in 2011.

So far, that has been the one and only top-up, and HILDA has been becoming slightly less representative each year since then. This is not a criticism of the team at the Melbourne Institute but a call for more funds to conduct another top-up in order to make sure the survey represents all Australians.

How big is the problem? Between June 2011 and December 2018, Australia’s population grew by 13 per cent, from 22.3 million to 25.2 million. Of those extra people, about six in ten were migrants, which means that HILDA is roughly in the same position in relation to new arrivals as it was in 2011.

But perhaps more of a concern is how migration trends have changed. While the total number of arrivals might be similar in the two periods, 2001–11 and 2011–18, the two sets of migrants are different in important ways.

When HILDA was first established in 2001, new migrants tended to arrive on a permanent visa and settle into Australia. People still come to Australia this way however the migrant intake now includes a higher share of people who arrive on a temporary visa and then move to a permanent visa. These people represent a challenge for HILDA because many of them change their residency intentions after arriving in Australia. This means they are more difficult to categorise as either overseas visitors or long-term Australian citizens. The share of permanent visas granted to people in Australia has shifted from fewer than one in three in 2001 to about one in two by 2018.

For a bunch of survey questions, these trends probably don’t matter too much at the moment. Income dynamics are unlikely to be seriously affected by eight years of undercounting, for example — though the effects will become more serious if no top-up is carried out for another decade. But in a handful of areas, undercounting is more worrying. Take two topics, congestion and welfare.

According to the Parliamentary Library’s analysis of the most recent HILDA report:

 There has been a notable increase in the time spent commuting in Australia from an average of 48.8 minutes per day in 2002 to 59.9 minutes per day in 2017. Of the major capital cities Sydney has the highest average commuting time at 71.1 minutes in 2017 which compares with 60.6 minutes in 2002.

A lot was made of this finding, with politicians and media analysisfocusing on the increase.

But the evidence shows that migrants arriving since 2011 are more likely to cluster in inner-city areas (or near universities, in the case of international students) even compared with arrivals between 2001 and 2011. With the growth in housing supply — mainly apartments — in the inner suburbs, these recent arrivals are probably closer to work or other regular destinations, on average, than the existing population.

If that’s the case, HILDA is undercounting potential reductions in commuting times. It’s true that the general increase in commuting times documented by HILDA is substantial, and would not be erased by the potential effects of recent migrants, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to capture the full picture of commuting and congestion in Australia.

Welfare is another area where new arrivals and the existing population will differ. Legislative change in 2018 now means people who gain a new permanent visa are restricted from receiving Newstart for four years, a doubling of the waiting time. This obviously means that recent migrants are less likely to access Newstart (whether or not they are unemployed) compared with Australian residents, and so HILDA potentially overcounts the proportion of households receiving that payment.

The past decade’s rise in migration to Australia by New Zealand citizens, who are largely excluded from welfare support, is also likely to be affecting HILDA’s results. In the medium term, all these effects will start to play bigger roles in household and income analysis.

HILDA is heavily relied on by researchers and generates much attention because of the critical role it plays in providing a record of how Australians are tracking. The survey underpins research across multiple fields and is closely followed by all levels of government, the bureaucracy, business and civil society. It is simply too important for us to watch as more years tick by without another top-up and it slips from being a truly representative sample of the Australian population to a representation of an Australia frozen in time.

The inability to factor migration trends into evidence and research is not restricted to longitudinal surveys. For a country shaped by migration, we are strangely ignorant about the effects of migration on our social and economic experience, and on our environment. Bureaucrats often ignore the impact of migration, mostly because they lack a strong grasp of the basic data. And this leads to the charge that “elites” are deliberately pushing a big Australia down the throats of an unwilling public.

More importantly, the vast majority of public decision-makers simply don’t know what’s going on, whether in terms of urban planning, higher education or the labour market. In a small way, HILDA is contributing to this ignorance and deserves a funding bump to make sure it looks like modern Australia.

A new Bill to ‘Strengthen the Character Test’

The Morrison Government has proposed additional changes to the character test in the Migration Act. This Bill was tabled in Parliament in July and is due to be debated in the Senate in the week commencing 16 September or from October. The Parliamentary Library analysis of the Bill is here.

I have drafted a short submission for the Senate Committee inquiry, due on 7 August. You can view the submission here. If you would like to add your name to the submission, please let me know by email and I’ll do so []. You can do so in a personal or professional capacity. If you have minor suggestions or feedback on the submission, please let me know, noting I will not be adding more general discussion of the Bill to maintain brevity. Please feel free to forward this blog post or the document itself onto any others you feel may lend their name to the submission. 

I believe the Bill will have significant negative effects for the administration of the Migration Act, and generate considerable difficulty for recent (and not so recent) migrants to Australia. 

The Bill was first introduced in 2018 and attracted 17 submissions, many making a strong case against the Bill. The Bill lapsed given the election. With this in mind, my submission is not long nor does it cover all of the issues raised by the Bill, as these are mostly discussed in the Committee’s previous report. I have tried to complement previous submissions. 

Labor have hinted in the media they are considering their position on the Bill. For the Senate to defeat the Bill, each of Labor, the Greens, Centre Alliance and Jacqui Lambie will be required to vote against it.

A short explanation on my position. In societies where the politics of law and order has become so dominant, it is difficult to argue for a set of principles that will provide any benefit whatsoever for people convicted of crimes. Combine this with the general topic of immigration, and it becomes almost impossible. Yet these recent legislative developments point towards a sharp deterioration in how we treat people who, in many cases, have made their life in Australia. This is occurring largely out of sight, given the people affected do not have the ability to participate in Australian democracy.

An Australian citizenship crisis?

I was leafing through a 2011 report, Citizenship in Australia, published by the then Department of Immigration and Citizenship, and saw the “citizenship rate” for people born overseas in the 2006 Census was 68 per cent [This rate excludes tourists and business visitors but includes people on longer-term temporary and permanent visas]. I haven’t seen any analysis on the most recent Census so decided to have a quick look.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a six percentage point drop in the citizenship rate for people born overseas in the 2016 Census, down to 62 per cent. Six per cent does not sound like a large figure but it translates into about an extra 230,000 people.

This is unsurprising for a number of reasons. The growth in temporary and permanent migration from 2006-2016 was pronounced and citizenship take-up doesn’t happen immediately. This means there were more recently arrived migrants in Australia for the decade to 2016 compared to 2006. But we also know there are growing rates of people who are hold temporary visas for long periods of time, intending to become permanent residents and citizens but frustrated by the visa system. In November 2016, there was a three-fold increase to 46,000 in the number of people who held a temporary visa [excluding New Zealand citizens] who had been in Australia for 7-8 years, compared to just three years before in November 2013. Further, changes in citizenship policy (including the introduction of the citizenship test in 2007) may have had a negative effect on take-up rates.

But regardless of whether this is expected or not, the decline in citizenship rate for people born overseas is disturbing. Australian democratic norms demand an inclusive franchise and the current trajectory mean we are seeing the opposite emerge over time. This is an issue in need of attention from political actors and civil society. An expansive population of non-citizens has broad implications for our society.

It is worthwhile dwelling on how and why this trend has emerged. There is no citizenship safety net for people migrants to Australia who have lived here for a long time. It is a formal process, with eligibility criteria, and relies on a sequence of residency decisions. Temporary visa holders cannot become citizens without first gaining a permanent visa.

There are two groups who stand out. In 2016, there were around 86,500 people born in Australia who are not citizens. It’s difficult to even call these people migrants given they are born here. Just over 70,000 of these people were children. This figure has more than doubled since 2006, when it was 39,600, with 27,500 being children. These numbers are staggering in their size and trend.

Sometimes it surprises people when they find out children born in Australia are not automatically Australian citizens. This was the case until the Hawke Government changed the law in the mid-1980s. Now, a child becomes a citizen only if at least one of their parents is a permanent resident or citizen. A child born to two people who hold temporary visas is granted the same visa as their parents. There is a safety net for children born in Australia, the ’10 year rule’, where if a child born in Australia remains in Australia for 10 years, they automatically become a citizen. By the look of the Census trends, this rule is more relevant today than ever before.

The second group is people born in New Zealand, one of our largest migrant origin countries, dropped from a 37 per cent citizenship rate in 2006 to 31 per cent in 2016. There are structural visa policy barriers to citizenship for New Zealanders in Australia. These barriers are unlikely to be removed by either side of politics given they exist to prevent fiscal welfare expenditure.

The rise of non-citizen children born in Australia and New Zealand citizens living in Australia restricted from citizenship raise important case studies for how our society is shaped and who is allowed full membership. The introduction of the citizenship test in 2007 was the first instance since the 1980s where gaining citizenship was made more difficult. In the years since, the prevalent rhetoric from political leaders is how citizenship is a privilege, one which is earned.

But this is only half the compact, the responsibilities of the potential citizen to the State they wish to join. The other half, equally important, is how the State sets the rules and rights of access. While our visa rules have changed, Australia has failed to also adjust citizenship rules. We have moved too far away from a set of conditions that welcome a critical mass of people living in our society to be full members, to be citizens. In an age where security and fiscal austerity drives citizenship policy, the rules affecting the vast majority of people who do the right thing are now an unfair burden, including on children who have no agency to change their lived experience.