Every week or so, someone comes to us about their application for Work Visa based on a job which is meant to be related to their NZ qualification.  They have spent several years, and tens of thousands of dollars, to get to this point.  Immigration says their job isn’t “relevant” to their Diploma in Business, or Management, or Hospitality.  Sadly, visa officers now apply the policy so strictly that many of them are declined.  Graduates end up here unlawfully and must go home, having wasted some of the best years of their lives here.

Scrap the Employer Assisted Visa

That may all be about to change.  Last week the Government released a consultation document which sets out ideas for dramatic changes to the Post-Study visa system.  The most striking is that the Employer Assisted Work Visa will cease to exist.  Instead, graduates of a Bachelor’s degree and above can get a 3-year open Work Visa (any employer).  Those who pass a lower tertiary qualification get a 1-year visa.

Now, I’m no apologist for Immigration New Zealand, but I actually think this is a good idea.  The Employer Assisted “relevance test” being applied to job offers has simply become unworkable.  A number of our colleagues have given seminars on the lengths to which visa staff have gone to find ways to decline these applications.  One problem is showing how the qualification is related to the job.  While the policy only requires the major subject area and level of the course to relate to the employment, INZ staff are picking over the individual papers to point out how many of them can’t be used in that specific role.  Another issue is asking whether that qualification was “a key factor” in the employer deciding to take someone on.  It is seldom sufficient nowadays for the manager to simply write a letter saying that it was.  Immigration officers strive to draw inferences from the evidence to conclude that the qualification could not have been important to hiring the person.

So it will probably be a relief to people on both sides of the desk if this shambles is consigned to history.  Another new proposal is to limit anybody doing a sub-degree course to a 1-year Work Visa.  They will no longer be able to get the 2-year Employer Assisted visa.  The Minister of Immigration has made clear in several recent releases and speeches that the aim here is to put the squeeze onto international students to aim for higher-level qualifications.  So long as the Government takes an active responsibility to publicise this new setting, if it comes in, then it may achieve that end.

Exploitation by Employers

Another objective is to combat the exploitation of migrants.  The consultation document mostly focuses on graduates being compelled to accept low-paying jobs, and even “paying” for their job under the table, owing to the imperative to get the Employer Assisted visa to remain in New Zealand.  Presently, after completing suitable study, migrants only have 1 year to find the “relevant” job to support the Employer Assisted visa.  Many find that this time is too short.

By making the 3-year Work Visa open – that is, no need to specify who has offered the job –  could well take the pressure off.  It would also give people more flexibility about choosing who to work for.  At the moment, if someone gets into a job which is not right for them, does not pay enough, or has no room for advancement, then they have to apply for a Variation of Conditions to do so – and then they run right back into the arms of the troubles I described above.

However, the package of proposals might simply shift the problem.  The ones most likely to be exploited will become those who still enrol for a sub-degree course.  They only have a year from graduation to get into a job high enough up the ladder for them to apply for a market-tested Essential Skills Work Visa, or to apply for Skilled Migrant Residence outright.  That is an even bigger ask than what the current arrangement requires.

The problem is that, while the Government may hope that people somehow get the message that doing these sub-degree courses is probably a road to nowhere, that is not the story that will be sold in Kashmir or Fujian.  Which brings us to the other side of the corrupt student migrant story.

“Selling the Dream”

The exploitation which is arguably more pervasive occurs at the start, when unscrupulous offshore education recruiters sell courses as a sure-fire way to Residence, aided and abetted by some New Zealand colleges of dubious repute.  The consultation paper does refer to it, but interestingly it passes over it quickly in favour of concerns about breaches of minimum employment rights.

I’m not sure if these new gear shifts will end this big-ticket abuse in the export education industry.  After all, if an education agent can sell the idea of getting a 3-year post-study visa to someone who signs up to a 3-year degree, then they will get a lot of takers.  What is means is that the stakes will only get higher.

Already, migrants from India in particular are putting their families into debt to pay for several years’ worth of tuition and accommodation.  Some of the low-hanging fruit will no longer be worth selling, like one-year Diplomas in Business.  But the chance to have 3 years to look for jobs which could give a chance at Residence will be irresistible to many who are desperate to get away from the ferociously competitive labour market back home.  The exploited may be less numerous in future, but their plight may be more extreme.

If the Government is really serious about student exploitation, then it will make it illegal for New Zealand colleges to pay massive commissions to attract the education “recruiters”.  As I indicated in a blog from just before the Election last year, there is a trade-off here between the integrity of New Zealand’s reputation and the billions of dollars in export education revenue.  The question is whether the Labour Government has the stomach to take on this issue head-on for the first time.