Australia’s temporary graduate visa attracts international students, but many find it hard to get work in their field
The number of international students who stay in Australia after graduating on the temporary graduate visa – often referred to as the 485 visa – is growing fast. There were nearly 92,000 temporary graduate visa holders in Australia as of June 2019. That’s up from around 71,000 in June 2018 – a 29% increase.
The 485 visa was introduced in 2008 and updated in 2013, taking on recommendations from the 2011 Knight Review, which recognised post-study work rights for international students as crucial for Australia to remain competitive in the education export market.
Under the visa, international recent graduates of a degree or qualification from an Australian institution can stay in Australia for two to four years, depending on the qualification. The government points to the visa as providing an opportunity for international students to remain in Australia for a limited period of time and gain international work experience.
In our recent study, we examined the effects of the 485 visa policy on international students in Australia and on the labour market.
Out of the visa holders we surveyed, 76% said access to the visa was an important factor in their decision to study in Australia. And the majority of the past (89%) and current (79%) 485 visa holders in Australia participated in the labour force. (Past holders of the visa refer to either those who have returned to their country or remained in Australia but moved on to another visa).
But many graduates did not work full-time, and they did not necessarily work in their field of study. A considerable number of graduates were employed in retail, hospitality or as cleaners.
We collected data through an online survey from 1,156 international graduates, some of whom are in Australia and others back in their home countries. We also conducted in-depth interviews with students and other key stakeholders such as employers.
Our analysis included that of government figures and policy.
The top five citizenship countries of 485 visa holders in Australia (India, China, Nepal, Pakistan, Vietnam) have also been the top five source countries of international enrolments in Masters by coursework (China, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Vietnam) programs since 2013.
Up to 56% of current visa holders either worked outside their field of study (35%) or were unemployed (21%), which puts these groups at risk of financial stress and vulnerability.
Australian government data shows occupations such as “sales assistants and salespersons” as well and “cleaners and laundry workers” are in the top three for 485 visa holders across all occupations.
Were visa holders satisfied?
We asked participants to rate how satisfied they were (on a five point scale form extremely dissatisfied to extremely satisfied) with their employment experience while on visa 485. There was an overall satisfaction rate of 66%.
Those who reported being dissatisfied did so for five main reasons:
- the two-year time limit was too short to give employers confidence, to help graduates gain membership with a professional body, and to build work experience and secure employment
- employers prefer applicants with permanent residency (PR) and lack understanding of the 485 visa
- there’s a lack of flexibility in extending or renewing the visa
- there’s a lack of support from related stakeholders (including continuing access to institutional career support services) and lack of advice around temporary graduate visa and post-graduation pathways
- the temporary graduate visa isn’t an easy pathway to permanent residency, even though many think it is.
One international graduate told us:
Most of the employers don’t know what post study work visa is […] when I was applying for a job […] the recruiter liked my profile but in the last stage, when I told them I am on temporary graduate visa, they don’t know what exactly is it and they don’t care for the explanation you give about the same […] 50% of the good jobs out there ask for PR and citizenship when the term they offer employment for only one year.
Stereotyping about international students such as that they are “mere PR hunters” is also a barrier to job seeking. The importance attached to being a good “cultural fit” or “best fit” in recruitment is a form for racism, disadvantaging international students and graduates in the Australian labour market.
It’s important to note, however, that the education department’s Graduate Outcomes Survey also indicates that since the Global Financial Crisis, domestic graduates have also taken longer to gain employment, especially in their area of expertise.
Many international graduates identified a number of benefits to the 485 visa. Some saw the visa as a way to buy time in Australia to enhance their English language proficiency, acquire different forms of work experience and develop professional and social networks.
In other cases, international graduates were able to repay their study loans while working in jobs unrelated to their field of study.
Working in odd jobs also helped some international graduates improve their communication and soft skills. These are necessary for them to get their foot in the door and gain employment that’s more appropriate to their qualifications.
Our study also found 52% and 49% of those who graduated in 2015 and 2016 respectively reported they secured full-time jobs in their field of study in 2019. This indicates securing a full-time job in their field of study improved over time and specifically for those who were able to secure permanent residency.
It’s important to raise local businesses’ awareness of the temporary graduate visa, its purpose and scope to decrease stereotyping and give international graduates more of a chance to gain skills in their field.
It’s crucial for the international education sector, universities and related stakeholders to have specific campaigns, as well as flexible and practical approaches to align employers’ needs and international graduates’ strengths.
It’s important for the government to include an option to extend or renew the 485 visa for an additional one or two years for those who have been employed full or part-time in their field of study for at least six months, or those who have started their own business in or outside their field of study with a certain level of income.
Importantly, this option needs to be communicated clearly to employers to address their concerns and hesitations about the short-term nature of the temporary graduate visa.
It’s in Australia’s interest to ensure temporary graduates on 485 visas gain employment in their field. This will deliver benefits to local businesses, community and the economy. Positive employment outcomes will also enhance Australia’s reputation for international education globally.