Citizenship requirements for public service work and limited private sector options were the key factors behind Canberra's rating as Australia's second least popular capital for migrants, a veteran demography expert said.
Keeping foreign graduates in the territory with suitable jobs was cited as a challenge at a time when Chief Minister Andrew Barr looks for a six-fold increase in the population of Civic – which is majority overseas born – and international student numbers at the city's universities have boomed.
Australian National University Professor Peter McDonald, from the Crawford School of Public Policy, said the industrial structure of Canberra was a critical factor in migrant figures.
"Other state governments take temporary migrants as employees on the 457 visa, the Australian government does not, and people who come on a temporary basis very often move on to a permanent basis," he said.
Professor Macdonald said the established networks in larger capitals were also a drawing factor, with Chinese and Indian migrants predominantly heading to Sydney or Melbourne.
There were 86,024 migrants living in Canberra at the time of the last census in 2011, accounting for 25.3 per cent of the population. This rate was ahead of only Hobart (15 per cent), slightly below the national average of 26 per cent and well below Sydney (39 per cent), Perth (37 per cent) and Melbourne (35 per cent), based on Australian Bureau of Statistics analysis of census data, published in 2014.
British-born residents made up the largest chunk of migrants, with 16,033 at the census. Chinese (excluding Hong Kong) settlers came in second with 6571.
Professor McDonald said Canberra's universities were the biggest single drawcard for migrants, but across the nation Chinese students in particular were not staying on as long as expected after graduation.
The ANU's international student enrolments have increased five-fold since 2000, up from 1184 to about 5800 this year, making up 29 per cent of all enrolments compared with 12.3 per cent at the turn of the century.
The University of Canberra had 3169 international students enrolled last year, making up 20 per cent of the total student population. This was up from the 1242 students who made up 12 per cent of campus enrolment in 2005.
ACT Chinese Australian Association patron Sam Wong, who was born in Hong Kong, said Canberra was not the first choice destination for migration to Australia because of its size and job availabilities, including little manual work on offer.
"However, if you look at the migrant population here, we're a little bit elitist, because most who come here are very well qualified," he said.
"Canberra is a very safe city, it's a national capital, if [migrants] look at demographics, it's high income, high cultural and I think there's as much job satisfaction in the national capital as other cities.
"For commercial focus migrants, maybe other more commercial focus places will be happier."
Both Professor McDonald and Mr Wong said the federal government could benefit from lowering some citizenship requirements for APS employment, in areas such as IT and research. Federal agency heads were able to engage non-citizens.
Australian citizens and permanent residents were eligible for permanent employment with the ACT public service.
The ACT and federal public services made up about 37 per cent of ACT jobs.
Professor McDonald said the migrant share of the population found in this year's census, to be completed on August 9, could be slightly higher given the recent drivers of ACT growth.
Net overseas migration rose by 2290 people last financial year, in contrast to a net interstate migration loss of 677 people.
Multicultural Affairs Minister Yvette Berry said Canberra had been a hugely successful multicultural city, as demonstrated by the record crowd of 280,000 people at this month's National Multicultural Festival.
"While we would hope to see the continued growth in migrants moving to the ACT from overseas, we would want this to happen in a planned way," she said.
Ms Berry said the ACT had always benefited from secondary migration via larger Australian cities.
"There were 1552 migrants granted a skilled visa to move permanently to the ACT last financial year," she said.
About one-fifth of the 347 nominated by employers last year went directly into the ACT public service, with another 32 heading to the ANU. The Commonwealth nominated no skilled workers under the employer sponsored scheme.
An ANU spokesman said new Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt said last month he'd like about one-third of undergraduate students to be from overseas, up from the current 22 per cent figure.
A UC spokesman said the university aimed to grow its international cohort with a target of 5000 full-time equivalent students by 2018, maintaining a similar overseas-domestic balance to last year. Canberra placed 17th on this year's QS Best Student Cities international rankings, behind only Melbourne (2nd) and Sydney (4th) in Australia.