Visa change will send PhD student’s rare skills offshore

 Singaporean pharmacologist Xian Lau, who is doing specialised research for a Melbourne biotech: “They are trying to find someone to replace me.” Picture: Stuart McEvoy.

Visa change will send PhD student’s rare skills offshore

Article by John Ross. Originally posted on April 26, 2017 in The Australian.

Xian Lau was in the middle of applying for a 457 visa last week when his world fell in. The scheme for temporary skilled workers was abolished, and life scientists were left out of the two “temporary skill shortage” visa categories earmarked to replace it.

The changes mean the Singaporean, who is awaiting the conferral of a PhD from the University of Melbourne, must leave Australia by May 15. He cannot apply for a temporary graduate visa, having used up that option after his honours year, and his plans to eventually pursue permanent residency through Victorian state sponsorship have gone up in smoke.

If the news was “quite a shock” to Lau, it was also troubling to the small Melbourne biotech that has employed him since he handed in his thesis. OccuRx, which is developing treatments to stop diabetics going blind, is “trying to find someone to replace me”, he says.

The search is proving difficult because it requires specialised skills with a “huge” microscope. “No one else in the lab knows how to use it.”

OccuRx chief executive Darren Kelly is also “entrepreneur in residence” at the Medical Research Commercialisation Fund and associate dean of innovation at UniMelb. He says the 457 changes are shortsighted and will undermine the national innovation and science agenda.

“We already have a shortage of skilled life science researchers with commercial experience in Australia, so we rely on the 457 visa to plug this gap,” Kelly says. “Until we have better educated our own workforce, to remove access to skilled labour is really damaging to the life sciences sector.”

Sydney incubator boss Petra Andren says the 457 changes risk sparking a vicious cycle, forcing nascent companies overseas because they cannot recruit vital skills here.

That would reduce opportunities for the limited pool of local science, technology, engineering and maths graduates, ultimately discouraging Australians from studying disciplines seen as key to the country’s future.

Andren, chief executive of Cicada Innovations, says 457 visas are crucial to companies when they reach the point of generating revenue.

“If they can’t recruit at that point, it’s death,” she says. “Investors look at whether they have the right skill set on the team. If they don’t, no money. Not only will we lose these companies that are supposedly going to create the industries of the future but we’ll also lose the capital that goes with it.”

She says about 28 per cent of the 400 or so workers across Cicada’s 70-odd resident start-ups are on 457 visas.

They are concentrated in the “scale-up” businesses that are beginning to grow into international markets.

This is partly because some of the requisite skills are extremely specialised and difficult for a small country such as Australia to produce, and partly because graduates lack industry expertise — a problem just starting to be addressed through a “sea change” in industry-university engagement. “There’s lots of good stuff happening, and now this. It’s a slap in the face.”

Kelly agrees that the changes could damage career prospects for domestic graduates. He says Australia produces outstanding researchers, but many lack business nous — an issue that universities are starting to tackle. “Part of the whole Australian ecosystem is bringing in people from overseas, having them work with locals and building that skill set.

“The biggest issue with these changes is that nobody’s been consulted, particularly industry. Nobody had any wind of it.”

Lau says if he’d been given more “leeway” he could have found a different way to keep his skill set in Australia. “It’s really bad timing. If my current visa was expiring slightly later I could have done some planning.”

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