Australia rethinks age limit for post-PhD work visas

Lower work rights cut-off would have excluded most doctoral graduates, critics warned

May 29, 2024
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In a rare piece of good news for Australia’s beleaguered international education industry, the federal government has reversed its decision to deny post-study work rights to foreign research degree students aged over 35.

The Department of Home Affairs has revealed that overseas graduates of PhD and research master’s programmes will be exempt from an adjustment to the age limit on temporary graduate visas (TGVs), to come into force in July.

While the new cut-off will apply to graduates of taught master’s, bachelor’s, associate degree and vocational programmes, higher research degree recipients will maintain their eligibility for TGVs until they turn 50.

When it announced the lower age limit in its December migration strategy, the government said it was “repositioning the visa as a product for early career professionals who can contribute to the Australian economy over a longer period”.

Critics warned that the new rule would exclude the high-skilled foreigners the government said it wanted to retain. The Group of Eight said around half of the PhD students enrolled with its universities were international, and 40 per cent of overseas doctoral graduates were in their 30s or older.

The lowering of the age limit was also framed as a way of addressing a discrepancy between TGVs and permanent residency, which has an age cutoff of 45. This mismatch left many older graduates in immigration limbo, the government argued.

UNSW Sydney legal student Sonia Qadir, part of a group of foreign doctoral candidates campaigning against the change, said enquiries with the government had failed to unearth any reasons for its plan to replace the five-year discrepancy with one that was twice as long.

Ms Qadir, who expects to complete her PhD this year, said many international doctoral candidates hoped to stay on in Australia for work experience if not permanent residency. “Once you’ve had…experience, your research is going to be much more useful. It’s going to be much more interesting; much more rigorous.

“It’s just the nature of this degree that it’s going to usually be done by people who are a little older. It’s quite likely that you’re going to be in your early to mid-30s when you begin, and some people are even starting in their 40s. We’ve been advocating on those lines for a few months, and we’re really happy to see that those efforts have borne fruit.”

Having worked as a human rights lawyer in her native Pakistan, Ms Qadir plans a new career as an academic. “It’s really useful to have…international experience in academia to be competitive in the job market internationally. I’ve also built my life…during the trajectory of my PhD in Australia. I have built an intellectual community as well.”

The new rules entitle higher research degree graduates to stay in Australia for up to another three years, with an extra year or two available to those from India, Hong Kong and the UK. The government has also maintained the 50-year cut-off for Hong Kong and British passport holders irrespective of the level of their qualifications.

Foreigners dominate PhD enrolments in many science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, constituting 65 per cent of doctoral candidates in engineering and 63 per cent in information technology, according to the latest available Department of Education statistics.

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Reader's comments (1)

The UK government's "Country Policy and Information Note on Pakistan: Christians and Christian converts" (April 2024), available online, suggests to me that human rights are more in need of legal implementation in Pakistan than in Australia, in the area of freedom of religion.