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Talent attraction – is HK’s work visa scheme up to scratch?

2020/8/20 — 15:28

With the imposition of national security law in Hong Kong since July, emigration and capital flight have suddenly become hot topics (see our articles here and here). This development makes it even more important for the SAR to attract international talent if the city’s economy is to continue to grow.

We will separately discuss how convoluted the immigration construct in HK has become, but in this first article, we will look in detail at how HK’s work visa scheme could be improved. We will use a close equivalent international regime, namely, that of Australia, for comparison and analysis, given it is now even adopted by the UK for its post-Brexit new work visa arrangements.

Australian scheme much more effective than HK version

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Introduced in 2012 July, Australia’s “Skilled Independent Visa (Subclass 189)” (popularly known as the ‘189 visa’) tries to lower entry barriers for talent whose skill set is in short supply within the country. The basic concepts involved in this scheme are: to attract migrants in occupations facing labour shortage, who can make significant contribution to the Australian economy at large and regional development at local levels.

Whereas the 189 visa only made up 21.4% of all visas issued by Australia in 2018-19, the scheme has attracted over 293,000 workers (34% of skills streams of immigrants, and 23% of all immigrants) to Australia since introduced in 2012. Hong Kong’s “Quality Migrant Admission Scheme” (QMAS), first came into effect in 2006, has only ushered in 5,418 individual talent (or 0.89% of all skill schemes, and 0.62% of all immigrants) into the SAR to 2019.

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Below, we look into the individual categories which may be improved in the HK scheme to make it more effective in attracting global talent than it currently does.

Upgrade 1: more weighting on productive age groups

In the age factor within the QMAS, people younger than pre-university age can get the maximum points (100% of total, dark green shade, Table 1) even though they may lack any knowledge or skill, compared to 189 visa attributing lower weighting to applicants under 25 (light green shade, Table 1). Reducing weighting of the 18-24 age group further could cut potential resource demand by these young entrants (e.g. on education), unless of course the skills in demand are typically available mostly from within this age group?

The 189 visa favours old age less – with anyone over 40 getting maximum 50% of maximum points, compared to HK where even by age 50, one can still get 50% of maximum points.

The logic of this skew may be one of economic benefit of 25 years of contribution (assuming retiring at 65) outweighing 15 years of retirement welfare (assuming death at 80) for the Australian system, compared to the HK one with 15 years of contribution vs 15 years of retirement drag. Better experience and connections aside, the potentially increased social burden to the host country argues for reduced weighting in the higher age categories in HK.

Upgrade 2: less emphasis on academic qualifications

Whilst both schemes attribute almost identical weighting to qualifications, HK’s QMAS attach far too great an importance to doctoral degrees, which attracts 57% of maximum points compared to bachelor’s 14% (c. 4.1x! see green and pink shadesin Table 2); Australia has a more balanced approach, with 50% vs 38% (1.3x), reflecting perhaps a more practical approach to the job market (even though one could expect Australia as a country needing just as many multi-degree boffins as HK, e.g. in defence, or high academia).

HK’s love affair with brand is also on full display – with QMAS giving 30 extra points to applicants if their degrees are awarded by renowned institutions (meaning top 100 in global rankings), boosting maximum points to 100% of category maximum of 70 points (blue shade in Table 2).

One could well argue that a doctorate in gender studies from Harvard (if it offers such a paper) is less practically useful than a mining engineering bachelor from Curtin University in Australia – which, although ranked 230 overall globally and would not be considered by the HK system, actually is ranked number 2 globally in mining engineering!

Besides, QMAS gives no credit to applicants who gained their degrees from HK’s own universities, while the 189 visa awards an extra 13% bonus for local graduates, plus another 13% if they attended a ‘Regional Australia’ institution (orange shade inTable 2). If QMAS preferred local graduates as applicants, they would integrate into their work and life easier than new arrivals, not to mention the extra economic benefit to the city when the same people first paid for studying in a HK university beforehand – a double win sure?

Upgrade 3: reward local experience

In the work experience category, QMAS favours seniority (rightfully so), but gives no credit to work done within HK. On the other hand, the 189 visa allocates 5 extra points for work experience gained within Australia (Table 3), in accordance with the general policy that hires should be done first from local talent before resorting to overseas recruitment.

Upgrade 4: give bonus for Cantonese proficiency

Having been a bilingual international city for decades, HK’s requirement for either Chinese or English proficiency is understandable (Table 4). However, there is no objective measurement for language abilities in QMAS, compared to the 189 visa scheme, where applicants’ English proficiency can be easily quantified by reference to their IELTS and TOEFL scores.

Furthermore, the Australian scheme gives extra bonus to ‘community language’ ability, which HK should adopt – e.g., by granting bonus points for Cantonese proficiency, so that candidates with ability to integrate into local society are given more preference.

Upgrade 5: remove children and degree bonuses

QMAS applicants were given credit for attributes that seem irrelevant to their competence as an applicant, for example, a maximum of 10 points (or 4.5% total weighting) are given for accompanying unmarried dependent children (5 points each), whereas the 189 visa does not have such a feature (blue shade inTable 5). There does not appear to be any inherent advantage for favouring an applicant with two children compared to another who does not; we think this feature should be removed from QMAS.

Another curious feature in HK is the obsession with degrees – where QMAS grants 5 points (or 2.25% total weighting) to a spouse with degree, the 189 visa is far more practical in adding 5-10 points to partners who are either Australian citizens or meet age/English/skill criteria (orange shade inTable 5).

Upgrade 6: Higher passing threshold, less education weighting

The final area we look at relates to how the various categories fit together in the overall scheme. Here we can see some interesting emphasis differences: HK puts more emphasis on experience (24% vs 15% for Aus) but Australia lets age do the vetting (23% vs 13% in HK), and language is more important in Aus (19% vs 9% for HK), while HK has more other factors (13% vs 4%):

However, the much lower pass threshold for QMAS is potentially a problem (36% vs 46%), to the point that just collecting academic degrees gets the applicant nearly 90% of the way towards an visa approval.

We will look into in what proportions different types of visas are granted in HK in a separate article, which throws up even more issues that can be improved. At the end of the day, anyone should be welcome in the city as long as they can afford to stay and contribute, too many pigeon holes with too many rules each could not only deter talents, but also reduce the local competitiveness as the city does not let in the best the world has to offer.

The author would like to thank Cheung Ka Wai of The Chinese University of Hong Kong for assisting in data collection, analysis, and drafting of this article.

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