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Skilled Migration in a Post-Brexit UK: Lessons from Australia
| Simon Haag

Skilled Migration in a Post-Brexit UK: Lessons from Australia

With Brexit looming, the United Kingdom faces the daunting task of passing whole rafts of legislation to replace the legal framework currently provided by the European Union. While Britain has retained control of immigration from outside Europe, immigration was a key issue in the ‘Leave’ campaign and reform will be needed to establish a new system adapted to accept applications from all comers, including Europeans. 

With the prospective closure of Britain’s borders with Europe, pundits in the UK are turning to the skilled migration programmes in Australia and New Zealand as possible models for what an overhaul of British points-based migration pathways might look like.

It is not the first time the UK has looked to its antipodean cousins for migration programme design ideas. The UK’s Tier 2 (General) visa, introduced in 2009, borrowed heavily from Australia’s Employer Nomination Scheme (ENS), a demand-driven programme through which employers nominate workers in a broad range of occupations for permanent residency on the basis of their occupational skills and experience.

How does SkillSelect work?

SkillSelect, Australia’s skilled migrant selection model introduced in 2012, has many similar features to New Zealand’s Skilled Migrant Category (SMC) dating back to the late 1990s. One distinguishing feature of SkillsSelect is that it recruits highly skilled migrants through a points-based system independent of any offer of employment in Australia. The applicant need not have worked - or indeed ever entered - Australia prior to the application.

By invitation only

The SkillSelect programme is limited to 66 medical and nursing; 38 engineering and IT; 43 trade; and 36 other specialised professions that are both highly skilled and in high demand.

Before a person can even apply for SkillSelect, they must first submit an ‘expression of interest’, setting out their credentials and points score on factors such as age, qualifications, work experience, and English language proficiency.  The Department then ranks these expressions of interest before periodically issuing rounds of invitations, based on annual occupation quotas set by government. Only those who receive an invitation may then apply for a visa. Although there is a nominal pass mark for the points test, the limited number of invitations and the ranking of expressions of interest by test score combine to create a ‘floating’ pass mark, with a higher score required to elicit an invitation during peak periods of demand.

What about lower skilled occupations?

On the whole, low skilled occupations are excluded from Australia’s temporary work and permanent migration pathways. Some semi-skilled professional and trade occupations are eligible via the ENS pathway, primarily after having worked in Australia for several years on a temporary work visa which generally requires some form of labour market testing. The farming, hospitality and retail sectors, as well as unskilled jobs that experience difficulty attracting and retaining staff, rely instead on a steady flow of overseas students and backpackers to supplement the local labour supply. Recently, this has raised integrity concerns regarding the size of the unskilled workforce comprising temporary visa holders. In the July federal election, the opposition Australian Labor Party ran with an immigration platform that called for a review of student and working holiday visa programmes in general, and work rights and conditions in particular.

 In recent years, Australia has also trialled a Seasonal Worker Program for citizens of Pacific Island nations, who are able to work in Australia’s agricultural and accommodation sectors during periods of peak demand. The programme provides an economic benefit to the island nations, where overseas remittances contribute between 5 and 20% of total GDP - more than international development aid. From Australia’s perspective, the programme has had mixed success: while welcomed by farmers desperate for help during harvest, a cumbersome and costly sponsorship process means that the SWP had little effect is displacing the key role in the Australian workforce of overseas students and itinerant backpackers. Suggestions of an expansion of the SWP into other areas of labour shortage such as aged care, health care and construction present both opportunities and challenges for the careful calibration of supply and demand for overseas low skilled labour, and observations of these developments could assist UK legislators with designing a post-Brexit work visa system.

How could SkillSelect be adopted to the UK?

The simplest way to introduce a system similar to SkillSelect might be a reinvigoration of the Tier 1 (General) stream that was discontinued in 2010. Like SkillSelect, this stream provided a migration pathway for independent skilled migrants. The key difference, of course, is the restriction of access to the programme to those that the Department has had a chance to vet and invite to apply.

Importantly, the expression of interest and invitation stages of the SkillSelect system sit entirely outside migration legislation: it is simply a requirement at the time of lodging a visa application that the applicant has received an invitation to apply.  The level of control that this provides the Department over access to the SkillSelect programme has improved the quality of applications received and dramatically reduced the number of frivolous applications which, once lodged, the Department is then bound to process and possibly end up disputing in the courts. Arguably, it has also resulted in a system with some quasi-legal processes which sit in an ambiguous area of government decision- making, outside the purview of the courts.

The Australian immigration system, therefore, presents some interesting considerations for the redesign of the UK’s visa programmes. Key considerations include whether the ‘invitation only’ system is a desirable development; what types of roles will be included and excluded from a SkillSelect-like migration programme;  and how the sectors that are excluded from the programme might be supported in terms of provision of overseas labour.