Like many international students, Mufthi Thanzeel studied in Australia in the hopes of finding employment in his chosen profession after graduation, and eventually obtaining permanent residency.
- A new report from the Grattan Institute says international graduates are being given false hope about permanent residency pathways.
- The study found that less than a third of temporary graduate visa holders transition to permanent residency when their visa expires.
- The report calls for an overhaul of graduate visas, saying recent changes are “too generous”.
But four months after completing his master’s degree at Flinders University in Adelaide, the 27-year-old is still struggling to get his foot in the door.
“People say you should have experience, but you should at least give me a chance to prove my skills,” he told ABC.
The Sri Lankan cybersecurity graduate was denied several internships and work experience opportunities while studying because he did not have full-time work rights on a student visa.
Since graduating, Thanzeel has applied for around 15 jobs and admits to having encountered additional obstacles as an international graduate.
But he remains optimistic.
Recent visa changes gave him more time to try to break into the job market.
In July, the Albanian government extended post-study work visas, allowing graduates with a degree linked to a labor shortage to stay and work in Australia for an additional two years.
“I still have four to five years to try my luck and do my best,” Mr Thanzeel said.
“If you’re lucky, you can do it. If you’re unlucky, you’ll have to struggle a little.”
Post-study work rights are “too generous”
Although Mr. Thaeel understands that his path to permanent residence may not be easy, a The Grattan Institute report released this week claims many international graduates are given “false hopes” and claims post-study entitlements are “too generous”.
Brendan Coates, lead author of the report and director of the Grattan Institute’s economic policy program, says the government’s decision to allow more graduates to stay and work even longer was a mistake.
“The growing number of international graduates in Australia means that fewer people are now likely to obtain a permanent visa,” Mr Coates told the ABC.
According to the report, only half of them obtain full-time employment and most end up in low-skilled jobs.
Meanwhile, in 2022, less than a third of temporary graduate visa holders transitioned to permanent residency when their visa expired, compared to two thirds in 2014.
“Encouraging so many international graduates to stay and struggle in Australia is in no one’s interests,” Mr Coates said.
“For those who are unlikely to be able to stay permanently, we have an ethical responsibility to be upfront about this.
“For many graduates, the right response is not to be offered such long working rights and to go home sooner.”
The number of temporary graduate visas has doubled to almost 200,000 since 2019, according to the report.
He estimates the move to make post-study work rights “even more generous” could result in the number of temporary study visa holders in Australia almost doubling to around 370,000 by 2030.
Mr Coates says this will leave even more graduates stuck without visas, with even worse chances of ever gaining permanent residency, while adding further pressure to Australia’s already tight rental markets.
Students ‘don’t know what to expect’
Yeganeh Soltanpour, president of the Council of International Students Australia, says international students are not necessarily given false information, but the picture is often “too bright”.
“Many students come with a purpose and with the hope of being able to study in order to get a position,” Ms. Soltanpour said.
“But I’ve seen in some cases that they don’t really know what they’re getting into.”
She said universities are not always clear about what qualifications are needed to pursue chosen careers, and international students do not always have equal employment opportunities.
When Ms. Soltanpour attended her first career festival in 2018, many job postings openly stated that they did not accept international students.
“There were a few roles we could play, but it was very, very few,” she told ABC.
“I could literally count them on one hand.”
Ms Soltanpour says there have been drastic changes since then, but the Grattan report found many employers were still reluctant to hire international graduates.
“The main reason employers don’t hire international graduates is uncertainty over their ability to stay in Australia long term,” Mr Coates said.
Calls for an overhaul
The Grattan report says Australia should do more to help international graduates thrive, including launching a campaign designed to change employers’ attitudes towards new graduates.
It also calls for a visa overhaul to reduce the number of graduates living in uncertainty and identify the best graduates to stay permanently.
Among the recommendations, the report suggests raising English language standards, limiting temporary graduate visas to those under 35 – currently capped at 50 – and only offering extensions to graduates who earn at least $70,000 per year.
It also says visa extensions for graduates with degrees in designated shortage fields should be removed.
“Studying a particular course is not a good sign that you are in fact a talented graduate,” Mr Coates said.
Lesleyanne Hawthorne, a professor at the University of Melbourne who specializes in global skills migration policies, agrees with some of the key recommendations.
However, she believes that the current system still has many advantages.
“The study migration pathway created a large pool of applicants from which the government could select potential skilled migrants,” she told the ABC.
“In medicine, but also in nursing, we have a huge pipeline of several thousand international students… A huge resource for Australia.”
This “potential pool of young migrants” is also beneficial for areas such as aged care and the disability sector, Professor Hawthorne said, which is why she disagrees with limiting visa extensions to graduates who earn at least $70,000 per year.
She also would not recommend reversing the decision to grant extensions to graduates with degrees in designated shortage fields.
“I think both of these elements of removing visa extensions are very simplistic,” she said.
Even if some graduates filling skilled labor shortages can obtain permanent residency, “the problems of precarity and vagueness are very real,” Professor Hawthorne said.
“It is extremely important to make it very clear to all prospective international students that there is no guarantee of permanent stay in Australia.”
Mr Thanzeel knows he might end up in Sri Lanka once his post-study visa expires, but he is enjoying his time in Australia regardless.
“We have opportunities here, but if it doesn’t work out, we should always have a plan B,” he said.
“You never know what will happen in the next four years. I might find a job, I might not.
“You never know, but we have to keep trying.”