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Australia to impose tougher English tests on foreign students to halve migration

Clare O'Neil speaks at a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra
Clare O'Neil says she plans to bring migration numbers 'back to normal' - STRINGER/via REUTERS

Australia will impose tougher English-language tests on international students in a bid to fix its “broken” migration system and halve its intake over the next two years.

Visa rules for foreign students and low-skilled workers will also be tightened under the new plan, which aims to slash the number of people settling in the country to 250,000 by mid-2025, in line with pre-pandemic levels.

The centre-Left Labor government’s new 10-year immigration strategy comes as migration has reached record levels in Australia, piling pressure on its housing market and infrastructure.

“Our strategy will bring migration numbers back to normal,” Clare O’Neil, the Home Affairs Minister, said on Monday.

“But it’s not just about numbers. It’s not just about this moment and the experience of migration our country is having at this time. This is about Australia’s future.”

Over the weekend Anthony Albanese, the Prime Minister, said Australia’s migration numbers needed to be wound back to a “sustainable level”, adding that “the system is broken”.

Ms O’Neil said the targeted reforms were already putting downward pressure on net overseas migration and will further contribute to an expected decline in migrant numbers.

The decision comes after a record 510,000 people migrated to Australia in the 12 months leading up to June 2023.

Official data showed it was forecast to fall to about a quarter of a million in 2024-25 and 2025-26, roughly in line with pre-Covid levels.

Net migration driven by international students

Ms O’Neil said the increase in net overseas migration had mostly been driven by international students.

Australia boosted its annual migration numbers last year to help businesses recruit staff to fill shortages after the pandemic brought strict border controls, and kept foreign students and workers out for nearly two years.

But the sudden influx of foreign workers and students has exacerbated pressure on an already tight rental market, with homelessness on the rise in the country.

Rental prices in some areas of Sydney and Melbourne have risen about 25 per cent in the last year.

A survey done for the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper on Monday said 62 per cent of Australian voters said the country’s migration intake was too high.

Long reliant on immigration to supply what is now one of the tightest labour markets in the world, Australia’s government has pushed to speed up the entry of highly skilled workers and smooth their path to permanent residency.

A new specialist visa for highly skilled workers will be set up with the processing time set at one week, helping businesses recruit top migrants amid tough competition with other developed economies.

Another new measure will see more scrutiny of any second visa application made by students keen to prolong their stay in the country, requiring them to prove how further study would advance their careers or academic aspirations.

There are about 650,000 foreign students currently residing in Australia, according to official data. Many of them are on their second visa.

‘Special sauce’ that made Australia great

Ms O’Neil stressed that immigration was essential to Australia’s prosperity, describing foreign workers as the “special sauce” that had made Australia great.

“Virtually everything that we have done as a country that’s truly mattered has involved asking the best and brightest from around the world to come and try to help us,” she said.

But nodding to growing public unease, she also vowed to “build a better-planned system around essential things like housing”.

The move to reform the immigration system comes as Australia’s opposition conservative party is enjoying rising support in the polls ahead of elections expected by 2025.

Peter Dutton, the Conservative leader, has accused the government of having a “big migration programme”.

“Our cities are full, the roads are congested, the infrastructure can’t keep up”, he said earlier this month while suggesting immigrant numbers should be cut.

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