International students doing "low-level" courses and who want to work and stay in New Zealand after their study will bear the main brunt of Labour's immigration policy as it tries to slash net migration by 20,000 - 30,000 a year.

Labour leader Andrew Little released Labour's new immigration policy in Auckland today, saying an "industry" of low-value courses had developed in New Zealand as a back door for immigration and it was damaging the country's reputation.

The policy includes halting student visas for courses considered to be "low value" - a step Little said was to clamp down on "sham" courses which were a back door to residency.

It will also restrict the ability to work while studying to students doing bachelor-level degrees or higher unless the work is a course requirement. It will also remove the rights to the post-study work visa for graduates from courses below university level unless they have a job offer.

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That visa gives many graduates a one year visa regardless of whether they have a job or not, which Labour says has become a loophole to secure a longer term work visa and lead to residency.

Labour has estimated the two measures combined will result in a drop of up to 22,000 migrants. It says the first measure will result in a drop of 6000- 10,000 migrants and the second 9000-12,000.

The third prong involves a stricter Labour Market Test to ensure employers were not simply paying it lip service before recruiting from overseas and were offering market rates of pay. It would also allow regions to draw up their own lists of skills shortages - and require skilled migrants to stay and work in the region their visa was issued for.

Labour has estimated those changes will result in a drop of 5000 - 8000 migrants a year - as well as further flow-on reductions in family and partner visas as fewer migrants are accepted.

While Labour is aiming to cut the numbers of young, unskilled or inexperienced workers, it is also making changes to bring in highly skilled or experienced workers - including a new 'Exceptional Skills Visa" for up to 1000 people a year.

That is for those with significant experience or qualifications, or who were internationally renowned for their talents - in any field, not simply those who will contribute to the economy.

Those migrants would not have to undergo the usual points test for skilled migrants and could bring immediate family with them. The aim was to grown high-tech new industries and "enrich society".

Labour is also proposing a "Kiwibuild Visa" for residential construction firms who agree to pay the living wage to an overseas worker and take on an apprentice for every foreign worker they employ - it has estimated that would bring in a further 1000 construction workers on top of current levels (about 7000 a year).

The bonus points given to skilled migrants who had studied or worked in New Zealand would no longer be given and points for age (which currently favours younger migrants) would be standardised to 30 for everyone under 45 - a measure Labour said would ensure older, more experienced workers from overseas were not at a disadvantage to recent graduates or temporary workers already in New Zealand.

Little said the reforms were "moderate and sensible" and aimed at reducing pressure on the cities while ensuring skilled workers continued to come. He said National's policies had created a back door to residency through low-value study and work.

"These have had the perverse effect that a 23-year-old with a New Zealand diploma and three years' experience in retail can get more points towards residency than a 45-year-old oncologist who wants to migrate here."

He said number of low-skill work visas issued had increased from 14,000 in 2011/12 to 22,000 for jobs such as retail and it was time industry and the Government took responsibility for training a local workforce rather than relying on overseas workers.

"A developed nation should be able to train enough retail staff to meet its own needs. Immigration should be a stop-gap to meet skills shortages, not a permanent crutch."

Little said it was time for "a breather" on immigration to allow the country to play catch-up on infrastructure.

The new policies will not affect the visa status of those already in New Zealand and current students who came to New Zealand on the basis of the post-study work visa being available would be able to get it - but any subsequent visa applications would be under the new rules.

The test of whether a course is "low-level" will be whether it has been assessed as high quality by the Tertiary Education Commission and NZQA - and Little said it was not expected to affect universities, polytechnics or schools.

THE REACTION:

Labour's policy was given a mixed review by Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope, who said it would help channel skilled migrants to the regions and ensure employers were not misusing the Labour Market Test - but could mean businesses in sectors such as hospitality, horticulture and IT struggled to find workers.

"It would be particularly useful to get the regions' skill needs more comprehensively represented in the occupational shortages list, to have visas issued for work in specific regions, and to involve regional businesses and business organisations in those decisions. For regional economic growth, businesses rely on a mix of skills - some provided by migrants - and it is important to give regional economies the best chance of success," Hope said.

However, he said on top of the current Government's recent restrictions to low-skilled workers, it would make it harder to fill jobs.

He said it was logical for Labour to focus on the number of students coming to New Zealand given international students made up a large part of overall applications for residency. However, it would have to be done with care given export education was a big revenue earner for New Zealand.

"Private Training Enterprises offering lower-level courses and schools and colleges and local communities hosting international students in all parts of New Zealand could be significantly impacted by this policy."