Lord mayor Sally Capp will lobby the next federal government to make it easier for international students to work in Australia for as long as they like once they finish their degrees, as she works to revive Melbourne’s pre-pandemic trajectory of overtaking Sydney as the country’s biggest city.
Cr Capp wants every student who completes a bachelor’s degree or above to have automatic access to a four-year visa, doubling the maximum allowable period for most students.
Graduates who maintain work over four years would then have a clear pathway to permanent residency under the proposal, which Cr Capp will outline in a speech to the Melbourne Press Club on Wednesday.
It comes as the peak body for Victoria’s property sector calls on the state government to launch an international marketing campaign to entice foreign students and offer $15,000 grants to anyone who relocates from interstate or overseas.
In Cr Capp’s speech, seen by The Age, she will point out Melbourne’s greatest challenge has flipped from harnessing a decade-long population boom leading up to the pandemic, when the Victorian capital’s population was projected to leapfrog Sydney’s by 2026.
Amid federal Treasury projections that tens of thousands of Victorians will depart for other states over the next three years, the second-term mayor will say “drastic and brave” action such as her international student plan is required.
“It will help to make Australia a more attractive and conducive destination for students and allow us to retain smart and globally connected talent and address current labour and skills shortages,” the speech says.
Department of Home Affairs data shows about 72,000 post-study work visa applications were lodged in 2020-21, compared with about 37,000 so far this financial year.
With a negative rapid antigen test now the only requirement for international arrivals, the number of students in Victoria has risen from a low of 68,400 in December to about 100,000.
They contribute $1.15 to the state economy for every dollar spent on tuition fees in what was a $13.7 billion industry in 2019.
Graduates with a bachelor’s degree or a master’s by coursework can apply for a two-year working visa under the current federal government framework. Those with a master’s by research and doctoral degree can request three and four years respectively.
Cr Capp says Melbourne will lobby the next federal government “in lockstep” with the think tank Committee for Sydney on helping international students enter the workforce.
Her position could be controversial among some Victorians, after political polling earlier this year found 65 per cent of voters wanted the country’s migration program to restart at a lower level than the 160,000-per-year intake before the pandemic.
However, the Property Council of Victoria agrees with Cr Capp, saying in its pre-state budget pitch that students were essential to the CBD’s recovery. Its proposed $15,000 relocation payment, to be half repaid by recipients who remain in Victoria after 18 months, would target workers in sectors experiencing skills shortages.
The council’s executive director, Danni Hunter, is also calling for incentives such as land tax and payroll tax relief to lure businesses with no CBD presence into the city centre.
“We want to see the reform agenda taken off the shelf, and expanded to supercharge our economy, revitalise our CBD, grow Victoria’s international student sector, unlock future residential and industrial land supply, and realise opportunities for regional Victoria,” she said.
“Reform is difficult, but it is necessary.”
Cr Capp will use her speech to label Melbourne “the busiest Australian city in March”, citing foot traffic around Town Hall at 95 per cent of pre-pandemic levels last weekend. A record crowd of 1.44 million people attended Moomba over the March long weekend.
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“Most importantly, we must sustain the revitalisation and recovery efforts into and during winter 2022. We can’t go into lockdown again,” she will say.