Changes to General Skilled Migration (GSM) Program 8 February 2010

by Mark Webster, Acacia Immigration Australia, 8 February 2010 For our article on how these changes effect international students please click here The Australian Minister for Immigration today announced significant changes to the General Skilled Migration (GSM) program. These changes represent an effort to more closely target the skills required in the Australian community and are a precursor to further changes to be implemented this year.

Cap and Cease of Offshore GSM Applications Lodged Prior to 1 September 2007

The Minister has decided to set a quota for Offshore GSM applications lodged prior to 1 September 2007. Once this quota or cap is reached, the remaining applications will be "ceased" which means that they will be taken not to have been made, and be returned with a refund of the application fee to the applicants.

The "cap and cease" provision will only apply to offshore GSM visas received before 1 September 2007 - namely subclass 495, 134, 136, 137, 138 and 139 visas. It does not apply to onshore GSM visas (subclasses 485, 487, 885 and 886) or the current offshore subclasses (475, 476, 175 and 176 visas).

At present, there is little indication how many, if any, of the old applications currently in the pipeline will be granted. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship estimates that some 20,000 applicants will be affected. There are some serious consequences of this change:

  • It is rarely the applicant's fault that their application has taken so long to process. In most cases, the delay will be due to Immigration's own processes - waiting for security clearances, successful appeal of decisions incorrectly refused, or changes to Immigration's processing priorities. Punishing applicants whose applications have taken 2 1/2 years or more to process due to no fault of their own seems quite inequitable.
  • The current pipeline of people who have lodged GSM applications which may take 2-3 years or more to process is something in the order of 130,000. Cap and ceasing 20,000 of these applicants only addresses a very small part of the problem
  • Many of the applicants who have not been granted have been requested for health and police checks by the Department of Immigration. The applicants would have, at significant expense, undertaken these checks on the understanding that their applications would soon be finalised. In addition, Department of Immigration staff have completed 90% or more of the processing required for such applications, including assessing that the applicant has a passing score, and this effort would be wasted if the application is capped. Refunding their visa application fee covers some of the cost of the application, but this is only part of the cost.
  • Applicants who had lodged prior to September 2007 may now be ineligible to apply for another GSM visa. This may be, for instance, because they have turned 45 and are too old to apply. If such applicants had any idea that their applications would be capped and ceased, they could potentially have re-lodged after September 2007 and now be unaffected by the current changes.

New Skilled Occupations List (SOL)

A new Skilled Occupations List (SOL) is to be introduced by mid 2010. The list will be compiled by Skills Australia, an independent body which has been set up by the Department of Employment, Education and Training.

The list should be available by 30 April 2010, and will come into effect by mid 2010. The new SOL will include occupations that require a long lead time of formal education and training and where the economic impact of not having the skills is significant. The result will most likely be a much shorter list.

If your occupation is not on the new SOL, you will only be able to apply for a state or territory nominated GSM visa. However, there are generous transitional provisions for international students studying in Australia. In particular, you will not be affected by the changes if:

  • You have already applied for a permanent or provisional GSM visa prior to 8 February 2010; or
  • You have already applied for or been granted a subclass 485 Graduate Skilled visa prior to 8 February 2010, and lodge your permanent or provisional GSM visa application prior to 31 December 2012.
If you are in Australia on a student visa as of 8 February 2010, then you can apply for a skilled graduate visa in any occupation on the current SOL, but must then apply for a permanent or provisional skilled visa in an occupation on the new SOL. Because the new SOL is not available, this change will create a significant amount of uncertainty and anxiety. When the list is published, it is likely that:
  • Many applicants will seek to lodge GSM applications ahead of the changeover date; and
  • International students not studying in an SOL occupation will seek to change to courses which are on the SOL
The new SOL will effectively replace the current MODL as the "beacon" for people wishing to complete studies in Australia which will then qualify them for permanent residence. The new arrangements also inherit other problems associated with the MODL - namely that the process of creating the list is to be handled by an agency external to the Department of Immigration with all the delays and communication issues associated with this.

It is hoped that the new SOL will be relatively static, and that issues of the skill level appropriate to actually work in the occupation in Australia will be taken into account. Many felt that the skill level for occupations on the MODL such as cookery and hairdressing were too low and led to the remarkable growth in student numbers in these occupations.

Abolition of Migration Occupations in Demand List (MODL)

The Migration Occupations in Demand List (MODL) currently allows for up to 20 points for people who have work experience in particular occupations. The MODL currently has occupations such as hairdresser and cook, which has led to significant distortions in the education and migration programs as thousands of international students sought to study in MODL occupations to better their chances of qualifying for migration after completion of their studies in Australia.

The MODL is to be abolished, but this process will be staged so that the impact on applicants. In particular, if you have applied for your permanent or provisional GSM visa prior to 8 February 2010, you will not be affected. International students who have applied for or been granted their skilled graduate subclass 485 visas will not be affected either, providing they lodge their permanent or provisional GSM application by 31 December 2012

The changes are unlikely to affect eligibility of students completing vocational courses such as cookery or hairdressing in Australia. Such applicants would in general look at completing work experience in Australia after completion of their studies in any case, and this would generally mean that they would have sufficient points to qualify.

The main group affected by the removal of the MODL points will be offshore applicants, many of whom are older but have significantly more work experience in their field. Such applicants would typically be engineers, doctors, nurses and accountants - skills which are all desperately needed in Australia.

Previous studies of the employability of GSM applicants have shown again and again that the more work experience an applicant has, the more employable they are in their field in Australia. The current change makes it very difficult for applicants aged over 34 to qualify for GSM, unless they are sponsored by a state or territory government or a relative.

Revocation of Critical Skills List (CSL)

The Critical Skills List (CSL) is a list of occupations in short supply which receive priority processing in the GSM program. Applicants who have occupations on the CSL are processed ahead of applicants in any other occupation. Unless you have an occupation on the CSL it will take a minimum of 2-3 years for the application to be processed. The list was introduced in January 2009, and now is to be revoked. The date of this change coming into effect is likely to be mid 2010, when the new SOL comes into effect.

Changes to Processing Priorities

Processing priorities for GSM applications remain essentially unchanged, except that applications which have been lodged under an approved "State Migration Plan" will have the highest priority of any GSM application. This is the first time we have come across the concept of a "State Migration Plan", and at present there are no approved State Migration Plans. Presumably State Migration Plans will be similar to the current lists of occupations in demand for the Skilled Sponsored and Skilled Regional Sponsored visas, but will have an additional layer of oversight by Immigration. This change may be a response to Department of Immigration concerns about the occupations being sponsored by state and territory governments previously.

Pre 1 Jan 2010 Trade Skills Assessments to be Accepted by Immigration

The Minister has also announced that people who had their skills assessed in a trade occupation prior to 1 January 2010 will be able to use these skills assessments in applying for skilled migration. This reverses previous legislation which came into effect only on 1 January 2010.

The previous legislation requires all onshore permanent and skilled regional general skilled applicants in trade occupations to have a skills assessment dated after 1 January 2010. The intention of this legislation was to force people to undertake the new TRA Job Ready Program which requires at least 12 months of work experience in the trade. The new legislation is due to come into effect in the first quarter of 2010.

The result of the change is that people who have had their skills assessed in a trade under the previous requirements (for TRA - a certificate III and 900 hours of work experience in the trade) will now be able to lodge for permanent residence without needing to go through the Job Ready Program.

This is a great outcome for students who have already applied for their skilled graduate subclass 485 visas. However, given that the change to the Job Ready Test was intended to address issues of fraud and inadequate skill level of graduates from Australian vocational institutions, this change represents a significant backflip in policy.

A better solution might have been to allow for extensions of skilled graduate visas for people who would have had insufficient time to go through the job ready program.

Upcoming Review of GSM Points Test

The Minister also announced that the GSM points test is under review. A discussion paper will be released shortly, and the review should be completed in the first half of 2010. The intention of the review is to ensure selection of "high calibre applicants" so we could see some further significant changes when it is introduced in mid 2010. Changes to the program may also mean that quotas apply to certain occupations on the SOL.

Conclusion

The changes announced today are very significant. It is somewhat surprising that some of the changes which have been introduced quite recently are now being revised and reversed. Constant changes to the criteria and the fact that exact details of some of the changes are not yet available reduces public confidence in the GSM program.

Many applicants will understandably be confused and find it difficult to determine where they stand in the migration process. Some of these applicants will be the high calibre applicants Australia is seeking to attract, and they may seek to migrate to a country with a more transparent and stable migration system.

Acacia Immigration has a significant amount of expertise in handling GSM applicants - feel free to contact us if you would like to discuss how the changes may affect you.

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