Scientists fear the changes to the 457 visa system could have major unforeseen consequences for Australia's cutting edge research labs.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced the Coalition is abolishing the 457 visa system, which will be replaced with two new classes of visa.
The Government said it wanted to train more local workers, which is set to be funded from an increased fee charged when employers bring in temporary skilled foreign workers.
Universities are concerned the changes will prevent them from hiring post-doctoral research fellows because of a requirement to have a minimum two years of work experience.
Scientists said the 457 visas were crucial for helping to teach Australian undergraduate students while advancing cutting-edge science being done in Australia.
That is the kind of work being done at the high-tech Sydney Nanoscience Hub, where experimental physicist Professor Michael Biercuk runs advanced quantum physics experiments.
Professor Biercuk — who himself arrived in Australia on a 457 visa and is now a permanent resident — said his research had the potential to transform everything from the way energy is transmitted to how cars work.
It is so hotly in demand, even powerful US intelligence agencies help fund it.
"I run the only trapped ion quantum computation research group in Australia," the University of Sydney Professor said.
"People think of science or research as very monolithic, but it can be extremely diverse — not just the difference between biology and physics, but even between physics and quantum physics."
He said there were not enough Australians who work in his field, and being able to hire international talent was crucial to help with research and the development of local staff.
"They bring to us skill sets that make our research work but they also contribute to the education of all of our team members - our PhD students, our undergraduate students and they really are a fundamental element that make our projects happen," he said.
"Nobody has come before in this space but there is a huge talent base in the United States and Germany in particular in which we draw."
Under the changes to temporary visas, workers will require at least two years of relevant work experience.
Universities are seeking urgent clarification as to whether previous formal education would count under the new visa scheme.
"Previously it was acknowledged in the 457 visa scheme that people who've done PhDs (which include a bachelor's degree, masters degree and then potentially six years of research and teaching) they meet their work experience," Professor Biercuk said.
"Right now we don't have clarity whether these specialist degrees will count towards the work experience requirement and we really need that."
Big unis concerned about unintended consequences
The nation's most prestigious universities known as the Group of 8 (Go8) has written a letter to the Prime Minister expressing serious concerns about the unintended consequences of the visa changes.
"The Go8 sees that a potential perverse outcome of the replacement arrangements for 457 visas may be to put at risk many of the estimated 130,000 jobs supported by Australia's $21.8 billion international education industry," the letter from Go8 chair and University of Queensland Vice Chancellor Peter Hoj read.
"The Australian Higher Education sector operates in a truly international marketplace ... we must compete against the best universities in the world for international students and academic talent.
"Establishing our reputation in the marketplace to achieve these outcomes is based largely on the quality and research performance of our academic workforce supported by outstanding professional staff.
"To do this requires international mobility of academic talent that allows the best minds from around the globe to come to Australia to conduct research and also foster Australian talent."
Senior staffers at the nation's top universities have expressed alarm. Nobel prize winner and ANU Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt said the changes came as a surprise.
"Certainly if there was a restriction of movement of academics caused by the change, that would be of paramount concern, it would put us at odds with the rest of the OECD," he said.
"It is my hope that in the wash something will come out where essentially the status quo where academics are able to move freely in and out of Australia would be maintained."
Duncan Ivison, the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Sydney also weighed in on Twitter:
"Agree at first glance these changes could impede recruiting outstanding researchers to Australia. More analysis reqd - but concerned," he said.
Neither the Immigration Minister nor his department have responded to the ABC's requests for clarification.