AUSTRALIA’S skilled migration policy is driven by national economic needs, not the educational choices of overseas students, Immigration and Citizenship Minister Chris Evans warned last week. In a speech in New Delhi that signalled immigration would be decoupled from education, and immigration, Senator Evans stressed that there was “no automatic link” between study in Australia and access to permanent residency.

“The Australian government will adjust the program to meet our national needs and not be driven by the education choices of overseas students,” he said. In a possible response to mounting anger among overseas students whose hopes for permanent residency may be denied, Senator Evans said: “The skills and qualifications we seek in migrants will vary over time.”

Although most of Senator Evans’s speech emphasised the depth of the strategic partnership between Australia and India, he had a sharp warning for unscrupulous education agents. “Those who seek to market access to a permanent visa in Australia rather than a quality education do a grave disservice to potential students,” he said.

Senator Evans’s comments followed a report in The Australian last week that quoted researcher Bob Birrell as saying the attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney may have been only the beginning of the social conflict to be played out as thousands of foreign students stay on with full work rights and compete for jobs and housing. Dr Birrell told the HES that Senator Evans’s speech in India was significant as it revealed a longstanding departmental concern to detach the migration selection system from the output of the overseas student industry in Australia.

Migration Institute of Australia chief executive Maurene Horder said that since the new critical skills list had come in, many applications based on the previous occupational demand list would languish in the immigration processing pipeline for many years.

The developments coincide with a recommendation from a conservative US think tank that skilled migration into the US should be restored to pre-September 11 levels to reverse the country’s technological skills crisis. The US depends on science, technology, engineering and maths to maintain its position as the world superpower, according to a Heritage Foundation report, Improving US Competitiveness. But the US suffers a shortfall of 75,000 science, technology, engineering and mathematics workers every year, even after importing 65,000 foreign workers and graduating 60,000 US engineers annually, it says.

In a development with possible ramifications for Australian efforts to lift the quality of overseas postgraduate recruits, the report calls for the cap on H-1B visas to be lifted from the present 65,000 to its pre-September 11 level of 195,000 visas a year.

As Australia cracks down on the permanent residency-driven training market, the influential think tank says the technology skills crisis is undermining US competitiveness. As a result of shortages, many American companies are being forced either to expand outside the US or not expand at all, the report says.

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