It may have been intended to fast-track Australian startups’ access to overseas talent, but newly released figures show that use of the government’s Global Talent – Independent (GTI) visa program has been dominated by universities, consulting firms, and resources and industrial giants.

Some 32 organisations each applied for 5 or more visas under the program during its first two years of operation, according to a new Department of Home Affairs list – provided as a Question on Notice response to questioning during the Joint Standing Committee on Migration’s Inquiry into Australia’s Skilled Migration Program – that showed Australian businesses had lodged over 1,140 visa applications under the program.

Of the 431 applications from the program’s heaviest users, some 253 were lodged by universities while major tech companies like Atlassian (20 visas) and Google Australia (9 visas) dominated the recruitment of talent alongside the likes of consulting and financial giants IMC Pacific (8), ASIC (7), Deloitte Services (7), and McKinsey Pacific Rim (6).

Mining and industrial giants were also tapping the program, with Rio Tinto (18 visas), South32 Limited (15 visas), Woodside Energy (7), and BHP Group (6) using it to attract what former Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs David Coleman, on launching the program in 2019, called “the very best people in high growth industries.”

GTI was introduced in mid 2019 with a remit to recruit up to 5,000 skilled migrants per year and debuted with agreements with startups and established companies – including Canva and Cochlear – that were, as Coleman said, designed to “make it easier for those companies to grow their business in a way that generates more employment for Australians.”

Two years later, Canva has used the visas to source five staff while Cochlear has accessed the GTI program twice.

Recipients can be fast-tracked to permanent residency and may be headhunted by a government network of recruiters, or apply for the visa under their own initiative.

“Over time,” Coleman said, “the Global Talent initiative has the potential to have a transformational impact on the Australian economy.”

Some 480 other organisations – a who’s-who of IT and conventional companies with a few startup organisations interspersed – also applied, with a dozen companies bringing on four staff each, including the likes of the Australian Cyber Security Growth Network, Department of Defence, and SAP Australia.

Self-driving vehicle startup Baraja and spacetech scaleup Gilmour Space Technologies joined BAE Systems, HP Australia, Netbay Internet and Telstra as some of the 24 companies that lodged three visa applications each.

IT firms like Amazon, Apple, Dell, Ericsson, AWS, Interactive, Nokia, and Technicolor each applied for two visas, joining 54 other companies including startups like agtech firm FluroSat, medtech company WearOptimo, and lab-based meat startup Vow Foods.

Some 391 organisations used the visas to hire one overseas specialist each, while ACS assisted its members to lodge a further 87 applications.

Measuring return on immigration investment

GTI applications are assessed against a range of factors including what Michael Willard, first assistant secretary within the Department of Home Affairs Immigration and Community Protection Policy Division, called “international renown” – which he described as a “key question” in determining whether individuals qualify for GTI visas.

Immigration policy has been morphing regularly in recent years as the government fights to figure out the best way to lure skilled international experts to support existing Australian businesses and startups working in key growth areas like quantum computing – into which the Morrison government has just announced $111m in industry-development funding.

ANU-originated quantum firm Quantum Brilliance, which recently secured a $13m seed investment, lodged two GTI applications.

That investment comes just months after transformational changes in another key visa program – the Business Innovation and Investment Program (BIIP) – that streamlined the visas available to attract overseas investment.

Unlike GTI, the BIIP program is predicated on applicants bringing millions of dollars in investment funding through one of four streams including an Entrepreneur stream.

The BIIP also offers an Investor stream that requires an investment of at least $2.5m, 20 per cent of which must be invested in startups and small private companies.

For every 1,000 BIIP places that are filled, Willard said, the BIIP generates $206.7m in direct investment, over $187m in business-development assets transferred to Australia, and over 290 full-time equivalent jobs supported.

“BIIP migrants are expected to be job multipliers instead of participants in the Australian labour market,” he noted. “They contribute to the Australian economy by providing employment opportunities for Australians and supporting the Australian innovation ecosystem.”