Coalition calls for cuts to student numbers, pandemic visa to slow migration

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Australia should immediately abolish a visa program that has swollen to include 128,000 workers since last year, according to new calls for measures to scale back net migration and ease pressure on housing.

The Coalition has named the COVID visa program and the foreign student intake as two urgent areas for cuts after AMP chief economist Shane Oliver forecast net migration would increase to almost 500,000 a year.

The Coalition wants cuts to the foreign student intake. Credit: Tamara Voninski

The calls come as the government prepares to release a migration strategy that will set out some cuts to the intake while promising a simpler system for skilled foreign workers who can help ease labour shortages.

Coalition immigration spokesman Dan Tehan outlined the two cuts after citing government figures that showed the COVID visa numbers had risen faster since the pandemic than during the worst of the health emergency.

In a forecast that raises new questions about the size of the intake, Oliver estimated that net migration would have to fall to about 200,000 people a year to line up with the capacity of the nation’s building industry and future housing supply.

“Current immigration levels are running well in excess of the ability of the housing industry to supply enough homes, exacerbating an acute housing shortage and poor housing affordability,” he wrote last Thursday.

Opposition immigration spokesman Dan Tehan.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

While the government forecast recently that net migration would fall to 235,000 a year over time, policy expert Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Immigration, questioned how that could happen without major change to visa programs.

“Even if net migration is brought down to 235,000 per annum in 12 to 18 months, that will still leave a record number of long-term temporary entrants in Australia who do not want to leave but can’t find a pathway to permanent residence,” he said.

“The government has said it doesn’t want a large number of temporary entrants stuck long-term in Australia, yet that is precisely what it has delivered – a record number of temporary entrants, growing rapidly.”

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil is expected to deliver the migration strategy within a fortnight, after she signalled last week a tougher approach to selecting the best migrants for Australia, such as skilled workers.

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil.Credit: Oscar Colman

“It’s important to note that the overall effect of these changes will not be to increase migration in Australia,” she said. “In fact, the effect of the changing will be to reduce the size of the system a bit.

“The point of this review and this policy change is not really about how many – it’s about who and making sure that we’re getting the best out of this system for the country.”

While O’Neil said Labor had inherited a “fundamentally broken” migration system when it came to power last year, Tehan said Labor could not keep blaming the Coalition for the increase in net migration.

The Treasury estimate for net migration in the year to June 2023 was 180,000 in the March 2022 budget, but the forecast rose to 400,000 in the May 2023 budget.

Oliver said the outcome was on track to reach 498,000, and Rizvi tipped it to be about 470,000.

While the government has said it will stop taking new applications for the COVID visa from next February, Tehan said the program – known as the sub-class 408 visa – should end immediately.

“The COVID visa should be abolished and abolished straightaway,” he said.

“Before the last election, there had been 26,810 of these visas issued – and now there are 128,796. Basically, they issued more pandemic-event visas after COVID than were issued during COVID.”

Rizvi cautioned against a sudden end to the visa, however, on the grounds that this would force people already in Australia to use alternatives to extend their stay, such as claiming asylum, which was not a good idea.

On student numbers, Tehan said universities should accept stronger integrity measures to cut the intake from the 369,979 visas issued in the year to June 30.

“They’ve basically let international student visas go to levels that we’ve never seen before,” he said.

“You can put greater integrity into the system, make sure that you’ve got proper controls around your processing, and you can restrict the issuing of the visas to genuine students.”

Asked why the Coalition did not impose the controls when it was in power, Tehan said it had not allowed student numbers to reach the levels Labor had allowed.

“When we were in government, the highest we did was 243,000 in financial year 2018-19. So we had much better controls over the integrity of the issuing of international student visas.”

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