By David Hargreaves
The Government's latest change to immigration policy settings is a curious, but skillful, bit of engineering.
The change appears to have a twin focus: First, to now cut down the numbers of people getting work visas here and second, to disguise the extent of the problem that has existed - and how much of a racket has been going on in terms of cheap, perhaps slave labour, entering the country.
In this I would liken the Government to the errant son being left in charge of the family home while mom and dad go on holiday, having a BIG party in which all the windows are smashed, then replacing them all with new windows and aluminium framing and telling the oldies when they get home he just wanted to do something nice for them.
Yes, National is trying to fix a problem without letting us in on just how extreme the problem has become; a problem it created through finding an easy way to pump up the economy in the short term. Pour cheap migrant labour into the country, ignore skills training for the young, keep wages down, and watch the economy tick along.
The immediate response of the Labour Party in describing the policy setting changes as 'tinkering' I think betrays both intellectual laziness on its part and a sense of befuddlement about what the new National policy settings actually mean and what they will lead to.
My reading is that this is not tinkering, but to really know how fundamental the change is, I guess we need to know just how many people have been coming into the country and taking 'skilled'(?) jobs at under $49k. Sorry if I'm insulting anybody, but I find putting 'skilled' next to '$49k' a very contradictory experience.
A shift in stance
The shift in policy settings move is also interesting given the Government's previous attempts to say there was no evidence low wages being paid to migrants were suppressing wages being paid in this country, or substituting for unemployed New Zealanders. I think it's fair to speculate that a heck of a lot of people have been coming into this country and taking jobs for less than $49k. No wonder we haven't had any inflation.
If, as I read it, this policy does put a minimum wage floor on what migrants are being offered to work here, then it does mean that there will be a greater reluctance on the part of employers to bring in migrants - which should assist local people looking for jobs. And that's definitely the right thing to do.
The baffling and insulting previous comments made by this Government about some of our young people and not working and drugs etc are worse than counter productive. The fact is New Zealand is stuck with anybody who was born here. If we intergenerationally breed lower skilled, poorly motivated people we are giving ourselves a social timebomb. If we are producing poorly motivated unskilled young people then we need to fix that - not just cast those people to one side and fill jobs with migrants.
My best guess is that this move will have quite an impact in terms of numbers of people coming in and when coupled with the moves from last year to tighten up language requirements, the expectation can be that migrant numbers will now start to ease.
Not tackling the student issue
But one thing that the Government made clear it is not touching is international student numbers - and that's a mistake.
It smacks of laziness on the part of the Government.
Attracting international students here is, on the face of it, terrific. It can pump very substantial amounts of money into the economy.
But, and it's a big but, there's been a clear pattern of attracting students, particularly into private training institutions, to do courses that are not necessarily of very high quality. Once they've done the courses though they then get jobs here. So, our tertiary education system's been used as a conduit to fast-track migration for people.
It's a problem and it's one that needs untangling.
We can't possibly sell this country as one offering high quality education - and expect to keep getting big numbers of students paying big fees - if the tertiary education industry here is seen as some sort of low grade migration machine.
The Aussies rate
There are numerous organisations that rank the world-wide performance of universities and I suppose all things are somewhat subjective. But I had a look at The Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Sure enough, names like Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, Harvard and Princeton stand out. But what's real interesting is that between numbers 33 and 78 among the 980 institutions ranked are no less the SIX Australian universities. Our highest ranked one is Auckland, at 165th on the list.
We could do better couldn't we?
The Government needs to roll up its sleeves and delve into this issue properly. Education and migration have to be separated. There are not and should not be two sides of the same coin. We should be selling our universities as purveyors of first-class education and aiming to attract the highest calibre of overseas students paying, yes, handsome fees.
The latest policy shift by the Government is a step in the right direction. But it's a baby step - and it needs to be followed by much more substantive reforms involving realistic long-term migration policy goals, a coherent tertiary education export earnings strategy and long-term skills training and employment motivation programmes for the young in this country.
But no, I'm not holding my breath.