Immigration Rule Changes to Foster Innovation in Australia

webster By Mark Webster
Wednesday, 09 December 2015

As part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda announced this week by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, changes will be made to immigration settings to encourage innovation.

Two main initiatives have been announced:

  • Pathways to Permanent Residence for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and ICT (Information and Communications Technology) Students; and
  • The introduction of a new Entrepreneur Visa

Pathways to Permanent Residence for STEM Students

This initiative is aimed at students completing Doctorate (ie PhD) and Masters by Research qualifications in Australia.

The qualification would need to be in one of the following fields:

  • Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM); or
  • Information and Communications Technology (ICT); or
  • Related Fields
This would appear to cover quite a broad range of studies in the science, engineering and IT fields.

Students completing one of the above qualifications in Australia would be eligible for additional points in in the skilled migration points test. It is not as yet clear how many additional points would be awarded.

The change to the points test is due to be introduced from December 2016.

In the information sheet, the example of Aiko is given - a student completing a PhD in biochemistry - who would receive more points in her application for skilled migration.

Whilst we applaud the intention behind the proposed change, it appears that it would have little effect due to the following:

Skilled Occupations List

To apply for skilled migration, applicants need to nominate an occupation on the Skilled Occupations List (SOL).

Whilst IT and Engineering disciplines are on the SOL, most general science occupations are not on the SOL.

In particular, Aiko's occupation of biochemist is not on the SOL, making it impossible for her to qualify for a skilled independent visa.

Unless changes are made to the SOL, most science disciplines will still be excluded from the skilled independent category.

Occupational Ceilings

Even if nominating an IT or engineering occupation, the current occupational ceiling settings mean that the quota for these occupations is filled each year in any case.

Unless occupational ceiling are changed, there would be no net increase in migration for these occupations.

Skills Assessment Requirements

To apply for general skilled migration, applicants must first have their skills assessed in their occupation.

Both general science and IT occupations have a work experience requirement, whilst engineering does not.

The situation for IT professionals is not too bad - ACS will accept either 12 months of skilled IT work experience or the completion of a professional year.

General science occupations are assessed by VETASSESS. Their requirements are very difficult to meet - in particular:

  • It is not clear whether research done as part of a PhD can be counted towards the VETASSESS requirements - in particular, VETASSESS requires work experience to be paid
  • VETASSESS requires work experience to be specifically in the occupation and the criteria are far from transparent
  • Work experience can only count if it was completed within the last 5 years - as a PhD can take 3 or 4 years, this seriously disadvantages students seeking to use work experience prior to their PhD

Aiko's occupation is assessed by VETASSESS and so she is unlikely to be able to pass skills assessment in her occupation due to the strict VETASSESS work experience requirements.

Skills assessment standards must also be reviewed for the changes to be effective.

Entrepreneur Visa

A new Entrepreneur Visa will be introduced from November 2016. It appears that this will be a provisional (temporary visa), similar to the Subclass 188 Business Innovation and Investment Provisional visa, or possibly a stream within Subclass 188.

The exact criteria for the new visa are still to be set - and encouragingly this is to be done through consultation.

The visa would require the applicant to have financial backing from a third party - presumably some kind of angel investor or venture capital.

It appears that some discretion may be exercised - possibly by requiring a state nomination - as the information sheet indicates that the business idea needs to be innovate and with high growth potential.

There is a permanent visa stage - this would appear to depend on the business idea being successful.


It is so refreshing to finally have some discussion on making Australia's immigration program better, after so much focus on "turning back the boats". For this, the government is to be heartily congratulated.

The criteria for General Skilled Migration and skills assessment need to revised more broadly for the proposed STEM/ICT changes to be effective.

The entrepreneur visa is also a welcome initiative. However, we see mixed messages from the government on people establishing businesses in Australia. A recent policy change appears to mean that Immigration will no longer accept "self-sponsorship" of business owners for 457 visas. This will have a significant impact on people establishing businesses in Australia.

The elephant in the room is the significant culture change which has resulted from the merger of the Immigration and Customs Departments in July 2015. The creation of the Australian Border Force sends the message that foreigners are not to be trusted. Immigration no longer engages with applicants and has abysmal service standards - this discourages genuine entrants and leads to poor decisions.

A culture shift needs to happen before Australia can really be seen as an immigration-friendly nation again.


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