The ACT government knew it couldn't meet demand on the territory-sponsored 190 visa program in April this year, but didn't act until June, internal documents show.
A ministerial brief sent to Chief Minister Andrew Barr in April, and released under Freedom of Information laws, said "the reduced permanent pathways is placing increasing pressure on the ACT Skilled Migration program as demand for ACT 190 nomination now exceeds the 800 target of nomination set by the Department of Home Affairs".
Skills Canberra, the agency responsible for the program, told migration agents on June 13 there would be no changes to the application and assessment processes introduced on July 1, but later closed the program to most applicants on June 29.
A spokeswoman for the Chief Minister confirmed on Thursday a review of the program was underway, with consultation to start in September, when a discussion paper would also be published. The Chief Minister has asked for changes from the review to be implemented by December 1. It's not clear how the application and assessment process will be different after the review.
"The government will publish a high level report summarising the feedback received, which will inform the strategy to be released by the end of 2018," the spokeswoman said.
The spokeswoman defended the lack of action between April and June, saying "adjustments to the program restrictions have historically commenced at the start of the financial year".
States and territories across Australia have the ability to nominate migrants for permanent residency through the subclass 190 visa if they have a profession in demand in that jurisdiction.
Until June, the ACT offered those with jobs not on the "in demand" list the opportunity to be nominated if they could prove a close connection to Canberra. At the end of June, the government closed this option suddenly with no word on when it would re-open.
As criteria tightened in other states and territories in 2017, and the replacement for the 457 visa also presented hurdles to potential migrants, many people moved to the ACT specifically to fulfill the ACT criteria for the visa.
The documents show directorate staff knew international students were moving to the ACT in hopes of gaining the visa.
"Anecdotal evidence from agents indicates a significant number of interstate international students have moved to Canberra since July 2017 to position to access the ACT nominated pathway," a ministerial brief sent to the Chief Minister on June 26 said.
Chandan Paul moved to Canberra in July last year, after the ACT government opened the door to live, study and work in the territory for a year in order to be nominated for a permanent residency visa.
His dreams were dashed on June 29, when without warning, and less than a month before he would have fulfilled the requirements, the ACT government website encouraging migrants to choose Canberra as their home was updated to say he was no longer able to apply.
Also affected, Klaus Mic moved to Canberra in 2014 to finish a degree in international relations at the Australian National University. A Romanian and New Zealand citizen, Mr Mic finished his degree and began work as a public servant, but he felt his career options in his field were limited because he wasn't an Australian citizen.
Data showing enrolments at private colleges in the ACT had jumped eight-fold between January and March this year was given to the Chief Minister's office. In 2017, just 46 people commenced courses at private colleges in the ACT, in 2018, until March that number had already reached 381. Enrolments were higher still, up to 831 in 2018, from 146 enrolments the year before. Since the restrictions on applications, enrolments have crashed, colleges report.
The documents show planned consultation with migration agents, which would have likely given potential migrants warning the program was facing demand it couldn't meet, was cancelled two weeks before the program was closed. The ministerial brief said the only way to manage the program was to close applications without notice in order to stop an influx of applications. An email from one staff member to another said "we're also preparing some standard responses for any discontent".
After a brief sent to the Chief Minister's office in April, Skills Canberra was told "to carefully manage any potential changes to the program," the spokeswoman said.
An email from Mr Barr in June expressed displeasure with how the process was handled, with further emails showing staff in his office had told the directorate they felt they had no choice but to sign off on the changes due to the tight timeframe.
"The recommended solution is the only way forward this coming year - but we do need to manage this better in future," Mr Barr said in an email to members of his staff.
"The Chief Minister has asked Skills Canberra to conduct a thorough review of the program and processes, including hearing all perspectives on how the program can operate into the future. This review, along with the consultation process, will inform the strategy and future of the program," Mr Barr's spokeswoman said, when asked how he would ensure the program was managed better in future.
A group of international students will protest outside the Legislative Assembly on Friday afternoon, asking the ACT government to allow students enrolled at an ACT instituion before June 29 to be able to apply for the program. They are also asking Home Affairs to allocate an extra 1500 places under the scheme to the ACT, which normally has around 800 places annually.