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35 is to be the new 50, but it shouldn't


22 February 2024

mature aged graduate.jpg

From the middle of this year 35 will be the new 50.  That is, the upper age limit to be eligible to hold a temporary graduate visa will be significantly lowered.  This is one of a number of reforms being ushered in under the Government’s Migration Strategy, which was released as 2023 drew to a close.  This article argues that the proposed policy change should be urgently reconsidered.


What has motivated this change?


But first let us consider what has motivated this proposed change. 


The proposal can be found in the Migration Strategy as part of a suite of initiatives designed to give effect to the Government’s commitment to strengthen and simplify temporary graduate visas.


The Migration Review, which preceded the Strategy, found that former students are the largest cohort of ‘permanently temporary’ migrants, with many having lived in Australia for five or more years.  They are able to prolong their stay by ‘visa hopping’, such as shifting on to another student visa while onshore, or by shifting back to another student visa from a temporary graduate visa, or by utilising other temporary stay options. 


Analysis by the Grattan Institute finds that while the larger proportion of temporary graduate visa-holders initially studied a university-level qualification, most who return to study choose a vocational education and training (VET) course.  This calls into question how genuine they are: are they simply attempting to find a cheap way to prolong their stay?


International students’ preference for cheaper lower forms of subsequent qualifications is evident in the most recently available (at the time of writing) data on student visas granted.  When we strip out and compare mature-aged international students who are more likely to have prior studies – defined here as over 30 – with their younger peers – who are more likely to be studying in Australia towards their first qualification – we find a much larger proportion studying towards VET qualifications.


Mature-aged student visa holders have different study preferences

Student visas granted in the second half of 2023 by sector, percent

mature aged student visaholders study preferences.png

Source:  Department of Home Affairs (DHA) (2024) Student visas granted pivot table.

Visa hopping may occur despite more mature-aged international students having little prospect of becoming permanent residents, such as when those students are already older than the permanent skilled migration cutoff.  Applicants for permanent skilled migration have to be 45 years old or younger, while graduate visa holders can be as old as 50.  This difference was pointed out in the previously mentioned Grattan research.  Grattan argued that “[a] lower age threshold would better target people who are likely to qualify for subsequent skilled visas and be good prospects for permanent residency.”


It reasoned that it is wrong to give international graduates false hope: enabling them to prolong their stay, particularly when many struggle to find a job, or are working below their skill level and/or may be underpaid or otherwise exploited by employers.  A lower age limit for temporary graduate visas removes a means for mature-aged graduates staying on.  It aids minimising international students and graduates in ‘limbo’.


A broader contextual motivation for the change is that international students and graduates who are prolonging their stay are contributing to population pressures in areas like housing.


Why this is not good policy


The above sounds all very reasonable.  That is, until you take a closer look at the arguments and impacts.

There are at least five reasons why lowering the age limit is not good policy.


1.  Blunt instrument


The first is that it is a blunt instrument.  It renders all international graduates over the age of 35 ineligible.  If we look again at the numbers of student visas granted over the second half of last year, a significant 16 percent are 30 years and older, most of whom will be older than 35 by the time they graduate.

A significant share of student visa holders are mature-aged

Student visas granted in the second half of 2023 by sector, percent

student visa holders by age.png

Source:  Department of Home Affairs (DHA) (2024) Student visas granted pivot table.

Yes, there will be a proportion who are not genuine students who are visa hopping in order to work and stay in Australia.  But there will also be those who are genuine students, with experience and expertise that adds to Australia’s human and social capital and, thereby, growth and wellbeing. 


That is, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that international graduates of Australian programs of study make great migrants, both temporary and permanent.  It is important to avoid policies that deprive Australia of valuable global talent.  By definition, international graduates are skilled:  They have immersed themselves in Australian life, and many will have gained experience working here while studying.  They enhance the cultural diversity of workplaces and the nation.  And, through their linguistic and cultural diversity and networks, facilitate trade and other relations and linkages with regional and more far afield neighbours.


There are better and more targeted ways to tackle issues of non-genuine students and visa hopping.  Many of these are either already being pursued or are planned.  One is the good progress made on bringing down the time it takes to process applications for permanent migration, which had perversely encouraged international graduates to be creative when finding ways to remain onshore.  Another is the Migration Strategy undertaking to introduce a new Genuine Student Test.  A related third is the Strategy’s commitment to restrict onshore visa hopping by applying greater scrutiny to applicants for another student visa.  Done well, these measures should have the desired effect of culling out non-genuine students and minimising visa hopping, without the need to resort to a lower age limit that risks depriving Australia of valuable global talent.


2.  Faulty logic


The logic in arguing that because the upper age limit for permanent migration is 45, the limit for temporary graduate visas should be 35 is faulty on two grounds.


The first is that there is a gap of 10 years between 35 and 45.  Consider the following hypothetical scenario, which is feasible under current arrangements, where the temporary graduate visa age limit is 50:  An international student who completes her Bachelor degree at the age of 38, moves on to a temporary graduate visa.  This provides her the right over the next two years to pursue relevant work experience in Australia in her area of expertise.  As she nears the end of her two years, she applies to migrate permanently under a points-tested pathway, with her chances bolstered by her work experience.  At the age of 40 she is granted permanent residency in Australia. 


Under the proposed arrangements the same graduate would be ineligible for a temporary graduate visa.  Should she wish to remain onshore and gain relevant work experience to support her chances to migrate permanently, she would have to find more creative ways to prolong her stay.  Alternatively, she would have to leave Australia’s shores and seek work in her field at home or in a third country, prior to applying to migrate to Australia permanently as an offshore applicant.  Or she just might not bother at all.  My point is that there is large disconnect between the visa age limits.  If this was the only consideration, it would make sense to push the limit out by five or more years.


But it is not the only consideration.  The second faulty piece of logic is the implied assumption that the intent of all temporary graduate visa holders is to migrate permanently.  This is a huge pendulum swing from the equally perverse fallacy that all international students are genuine temporary migrants.  The truth lies somewhere in-between.  Some, like the lady in the hypothetical scenario considered above, will wish to migrate permanently, and that does not make her any less of a genuine student.  Others will wish to stay on to gain valuable work experience in Australia for the purposes of enhancing their employability once they return home or locate elsewhere.  It is possible that these graduates are well over the age of 35.  Yet that would not have any negative bearing on the contribution they make while they are here.  Indeed, their work and life experiences are more likely to constitute a positive.


3.  Deprives Australia of premium global talent


The proposal to lower the age limit for temporary graduate visa holders risks depriving Australia of at least three sources of premium global talent.


The first becomes apparent if you flick back up to the first figure.  The other insight of interest conveyed by this figure is the relatively large share of mature-aged student visa holders who are undertaking post-graduate research.  This is rarely a fast process, meaning that most will be older than 35 by the time they complete their studies and, therefore, ineligible to apply for temporary graduate visas under the proposed rule.  Forty percent of international students studying towards their PhDs at Group of Eight (Go8) universities are over the age of 35.  This is why the Go8 and the Council of Postgraduate Associations is calling for PhD students to be exempt from the proposed policy change.  There is some merit to their advocacy.  But it ignores the other sources of premium global talent.


Global talent is developed through education.  It is also developed through experience.  Not all follow a linear progression from study to work.  Indeed many might do this the opposite way around.  Or intersperse their studies with work in their fields.  Deakin academics, Ly Tran and Jill Blackmore, point out that in humanities and the social sciences, including in education and nursing, many graduates work for a period of time before commencing higher studies.  These people bring significant knowledge and experience to enrich the institutions they attend, their communities and make valuable contributions to their fields of expertise.  But this group will be disadvantaged from doing so under the proposed change.


The same Deakin academics also call out the impact on women.  In particular, mothers who may delay or return to studies once they have started their families.  The lower limit risks compromising the gender and ethnic diversity of Australian workplaces.


4.  Places Australia at a competitive disadvantage


The West has an on-again off again relationship with international students and graduates.  As Australia grappled with COVID they were told to “go home”.  As Australia opened its borders and sought to hasten the post-pandemic recovery, they were told “Australia is open for business” and to “come on down”.  As international students and graduates flooded back to our shores and to our competitors’ shores, governments (plural) have taken fright.  International students and graduates are being accused of all kinds of sins, including housing, congestion and even inflation.  I will spare you a lecture on the flaws in these accusations, but will point you towards the discussion below where I argue that this situation is more likely a blip than a sustained change.


Australia is not the only fickle nation.  This latest falling out of love with international students and graduates lies behind measures being considered and implemented in Australia and in competitor nations.  From July this year, the Migration Strategy will cull a year off the post graduate work rights of masters by coursework and PhD students, and remove the two years extension for occupations in shortage, introduced only last year.  Canada is also cutting graduate work rights to a three-year maximum, with 18-month extensions offered since 2021 now set to end.  This brings both countries’ work rights regimes roughly in line with arrangements in the United States and New Zealand.  Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is reviewing the automatic two-year post-study work visa it reintroduced.  These measures come on top of more restrictive measures targeting international students. 


But what our competitors are not doing is imposing or lowering an age limit on post study work rights.  There is no upper age limit in either New Zealand or the United Kingdom.  Nor are post-graduation visa options in the United States age-specific.  However, for the more mature-aged graduates their best options are either Optional Practical Training or an H-1B visa.  The former allows graduates to work in their field of study for up to 12 months after graduation, with a possible 24-month extension for STEM fields.  The latter is an employer sponsored visa for bachelor level and higher graduates that is not age-specific.  Canada does not have a strict age limit for obtaining a work permit post-graduation.  However, applicants between the ages of 18 and 35 are often preferred, especially for certain programs like International Experience Canada.  For those over 35, securing a work permit can be more challenging but not impossible.  It largely depends on the applicant’s skills, experience, and the labour needs in Canada.


Only Australia has an upper age limit and only Australia is planning to lower that limit.  The risk is that highly skilled students who are approaching or over the age of 35 will preference studying in competitor countries.  In the race for global talent this is a significant handicap.


5.  International student numbers have come down


The Migration Strategy was launched into a context where there was much media and political commentary claiming that international student numbers had ballooned to unsustainable levels.  Back then the latest data available was that student visas were being handed out each month in volumes never seen before.  While they turned a corner in December 2022, in mid-2023 volumes were still high by historical standards.

What goes up will come down

Student visas granted over time, monthly

student visas over time.png

Source:  Department of Home Affairs (DHA) (2024) Student visas granted pivot table.


While the fear of many that this will be the new norm, international education expert, Jonathan Chew, refuted this arguing that what goes up will come down.  Jonathan explained that booming international student numbers comprised of ‘finishers’, ‘deferrers’ and ‘workers’.  The finishers were those stuck offshore and online when border restrictions were in place who subsequently arrived to complete their course on campus once those restrictions were lifted.  The deferrers were the many international students who chose to defer or delay their studies until Australia’s borders reopened.  And the workers were those who took advantage of the lifting of the cap on the hours international students were permitted to work.  The finishers are finishing.  The deferrers will work their way through the numbers.  And, with the reimposition on the cap on the number of hours international students are permitted to work while studying, there is less of an incentive for workers to enter under the false guise of being a student.  Which is why Jonathan predicted numbers will come down and, importantly, counselled that policy action would be premature and unnecessary.


Jonathan was right: international student numbers have come back down to historic levels.  The risk is that lowering the age limit for post graduate work rights will see numbers dip below historic levels and become the new norm.


The proposed lower age limit should be urgently reconsidered


So, there you have it: five reasons why the proposal to lower the age limit for temporary graduate visa eligibility is bad policy.  Namely that it:


  1. is a blunt instrument;

  2. is premised on faulty logic;

  3. deprives Australia of premium global talent;

  4. places Australia at a competitive disadvantage in the race for global talent; and

  5. is unnecessary as international student numbers have come down.


The proposal should be urgently reconsidered.

Mary Clarke


DXP Consulting

M: +61 401 088 571


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