Global visa crackdowns may herald era of ‘contested’ mobility

Higher education figures warn that US and Australian policies could threaten academic and student movement 

April 27, 2017
A worker directs pedestrians on a street in the central business district of Sydney
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Let the right ones in: the changes mean that ‘in hiring practices, nationality becomes more important than before, vis-à-vis merit’

Immigration crackdowns in the US and Australia could signal a “new period” for international higher education in which academic and student mobility is “more contested and problematic”.

That is the stark warning for universities after both countries announced visa changes that could prevent their institutions from attracting foreign scholars and students.

Last week, Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian prime minister, announced that a four-year visa programme for temporary foreign workers would be scrapped and replaced by a more restrictive new system issuing visas lasting two or four years.

For the shorter visa, more than 200 occupations – including biochemist, geophysicist, historian and life scientist – will be removed from an existing list of about 650 eligible professions. It has been suggested that the list for the longer visa will be even more strict.

The new programme “will be manifestly, rigorously, resolutely conducted in the national interest to put Australians and Australian jobs first”, Mr Turnbull said.

Institutions in Australia’s Group of Eight, which comprises the country’s leading research universities, currently have 2,217 academic and professional staff on the current so-called 457 visas.

Meanwhile, US president Donald Trump last week signed an executive order to reform a temporary visa programme used to place foreign workers in high-skilled US jobs.

It is unclear exactly how the programme will change but Mr Trump said that H-1B visas, used by universities to hire postdoctoral researchers and by international students to find graduate employment, “should include only the most skilled and highest-paid applicants and should never, ever be used to replace American workers”.

However, the announcement fell short of his campaign pledge to end the H-1B visa programme.

These changes, coupled with the continued uncertainty over the mobility of academics and students to and from the UK post-Brexit, mean that three of the world’s leading nations for international scholars and students could become significantly less open.

Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education, told Times Higher Education that both sets of changes are “potentially regressive, in that in hiring practices, nationality becomes more important than before, vis-à-vis merit”.

“My personal hunch is that we are moving into a new period in which, at a general level, mobility is more contested and problematic and national preference plays a larger role in professional appointments,” he said.

However, he noted that there are large parts of the world that are “clearly untouched by migration resistance or any increase in anti-globalisation talk”, including East and Southeast Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, said that visa changes in the US would “severely undermine” universities’ abilities to bring the “world’s best and brightest…students, educators, and scientists into the country”.

“This would have a crippling effect on our ability to train the next generation of scientists and on our own economic growth,” she said.

“We’ve already started to see anecdotal examples of these very people being turned away.”

Philip Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, added that “at the very least” the US executive order “will make foreign academics less enthusiastic about considering positions in the US and it may also make some US universities less willing to hire overseas academics, fearing endless bureaucratic hassles”.

Australia’s Group of Eight wrote a letter to Mr Turnbull expressing concern over the country's visa changes.

Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the mission group, said that the government has since “indicated that they want to work with us to iron out the unintended consequences of the broad visa changes”.

However, she said that the “mere suggestion of the government clamping down on academic mobility into Australia could deter potential academic recruits to Australia”.

“This is particularly a concern at a time when there are opportunities for recruitment from the US and the UK and initiatives under way such as the recently announced Go8-India task force [intended to develop] PhD and researcher mobility between Australia and India.”

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