International students and permanent residence

A Grattan Institute report released last night calls for big changes to the criteria for gaining permanent residence. While recognising that migration and higher education links may have benefits for Australia, the report questions giving permanent migration preference to former international students through points for Australian and regional university degrees, the professional year, and use of skills shortage lists. Instead they recommend permanent residence priority for employer-sponsored people earning more than $80,000 a year.

Major changes to PR rules would make international students nervous. And whatever the general merits of Grattan’s proposal, after Job-ready Graduates and border closures now probably isn’t the time to inflict another big problem on the higher education sector.

But reading the Grattan report (which I saw in draft) highlighted to me that I did not know how many former international students eventually achieve PR. The work for this post was an only partially successful attempt to remedy this situation. I’m not a migration expert and I may have missed or misunderstood things, but FWIW my key findings are below.

Total numbers of former international students with permanent residence

Counting former international students with PR is not a straightforward exercise, since there are many direct and indirect routes to permanent residence. A 2018 Treasury paper based on detailed immigration data identified 5,500 routes from a temporary visa, of which student visas are the largest category, to a permanent visa.

Taking all of these routes into account, of the 1.6 million people who had arrived on a student visa between 2000-01 and 2013-14 the Treasury paper calculated that 16 per cent, or about a quarter of a million, had achieved PR.

This number, however, is not consistent with an earlier Productivity Commission analysis, which on my reading of the relevant chart gets us to 300,000 international student conversions to PR just counting arrivals between 2000-01 and 2005-06.

The ABS Characteristics of Recent Migrants survey estimates how many people who first arrived on a student visa in the last 10 years have achieved PR or citizenship (a further step on from PR). The 2013 and 2016 surveys show growing numbers of former international students with PR or citizenship. By 2019, however, the numbers had fallen back below the 2013 level.

All the ABS numbers in the chart are below what we might expect from the Treasury or Productivity Commission figures. Policy changes a decade ago made it harder to transition from a student visa to PR just by holding a qualification in an area of alleged skills shortage. So an underlying downward trend is quite possible. There are, however, important differences between the ABS numbers and earlier statistics.

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