For the first time, the OECD has ranked the capacities of OECD countries to attract talented and skilled individuals from abroad. This ranking features three talent categories of migrants in its Indicators of Talent Attractiveness (ITA). These three talent categories of migrants include highly educated workers (with a postgraduate or doctoral degree), foreign entrepreneurs, and university students.

For each migrant category, OECD countries are ranked against multi-dimensional migrant specific indicators: quality of opportunities, income and tax, future prospects, family environment, skills environment, inclusiveness, and quality of life.

Australia has ranked relatively well in each of the three categories, notably ranking first for highly skilled workers. Australia reportedly ranks sixth and seventh out of OECD for entrepreneurs and university students respectively. While we should be proud of this result, the ranking reveals a clear gap in our ability to attract two major categories of migrants who would likely contribute to building Australia's future capacity and innovation in a range of industries across the country.

A renewed focus on Australia's 'attractiveness' to emerging entrepreneurs and international students would mean that we are able retain a competitive edge in attracting and keeping talented individuals. Doing so is fundamental to ensuring the country's continuing economic growth, which depends on finding new ways to stimulate increased productivity. Supporting foreign entrepreneurs is one way of ensuring this as it drives innovation, the creation of jobs and competition.

Our current program tends to focus on individuals who are already successful entrepreneurs – and consequently have already enjoyed a plethora of opportunities ushered their way. For example, Australia ranks comparatively low in the 'quality of opportunities' indicator for foreign entrepreneurs against countries like Canada, Switzerland and New Zealand. These countries offer relatively low minimum capital investments and job creation requirements. Such narrow focus creates missed opportunities to harness the skills and ideas of young and emerging professionals in spaces requiring leading innovation. Instead, we need to be providing support and opportunities to emerging entrepreneurs much earlier on in their careers – where it really counts.

Although obtaining a visa may be possible for many international students, the constraints imposed by exorbitant tuition fees and lack of access to work opportunities hinder the practical reality of those individuals actually being able to undertake tertiary study in Australia. This leads many students to opt for more student-accommodating countries. When compared to counties including Norway, Germany and Switzerland – who dominate the 'income and tax' dimension in the international student category due to the broad access to work during studies permitted by their student visas and the application of a homogenised tuition fee model to domestic and international students alike – Australia falls short. Attracting students goes hand-in-hand with attracting foreign entrepreneurs – by inspiring and supporting the next generation of innovators in their formative stages of higher education, we are more likely to retain the best and brightest.

There are numerous ways in which Australia can increase its 'attractiveness' to emerging entrepreneurs and students. Whatever the existing ranking of a country, the OECD reports that most countries can increase their attractiveness simply by accelerating application procedures and offering better residence conditions via holders and their family members.

It is also important to note that, despite Australia's ranking first in the highly skilled category, there is still much room for improvement. As it stands there are numerous limitations to this migration pathway, which may likely deter skilled individuals. These include restrictions on duration of stay, increasing costs which make it overall less competitive and continued uncertainty around changing occupations lists.

Given the Coalition's assurance that it will generate Australia's first budget surplus in 12 years, policy makers would be wise to take heed of what these key skilled migrant groups look for in a destination country. Contrary to the Coalition's current policy, we know that a return to a surplus will only be enabled if we dramatically increase our skilled migration numbers. However, the increasing global demand for skilled migrants has created a competitive climate amongst nations in their attempts to attract innovative and bright individuals. If the Coalition government fails to implement policy reform in this area, it risks losing critically needed talent required to meet its surplus promise and avoid undermining Australia's growth.

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