Thousands of South Asians have had their requests for Australian student visas declined, as authorities’ concerns about applicants’ bona fides spread from vocational to higher education – and a brewing criminal scandal threatens to make matters worse.
Visa grant rates for would-be university students in India and Pakistan plummeted in September, mimicking Nepal’s trajectory several months earlier, after success rates for vocational students in all three countries had nosedived to less than one in four.
Of the roughly 3,500 Indian visa applications for higher education study processed by Australian officials in September, Department of Home Affairs data suggest, well over 1,500 were rejected. Meanwhile, an extraordinarily low 3.8 per cent of applications for visas for vocational study were approved, representing just 34 of almost 900 applications.
Grant rates for vocational education visa applicants from India and Pakistan have hovered below 50 per cent for most of this year. In September, higher education followed suit, with success rates that had regularly exceeded 80 per cent plunging to 56 per cent for those from India and 57 per cent for those from Pakistan.
Things are worse in Nepal, where applicants for visas in both sectors enjoyed unusually high success rates until the tide turned in June. Of some 2,950 visa applications processed in September, just 33 per cent in higher education and 15 per cent in vocational education received the green light – suggesting that over 2,400 were knocked back.
The data accord with anecdotal accounts from education agencies and private colleges, which have reported a sudden uptick in inexplicable visa rejections. And it follows a surge in applications from all three countries after Australia’s borders reopened late last year.
It also coincides with a visa processing crisis after the former federal government cut A$875 million (£492 million) from the immigration department’s budget, prompting a blowout in waiting times. The department has attempted to redress this by recruiting more than 180 new staff so far, and by redistributing the processing workload to less stretched teams.
Tertiary education policy expert Claire Field said this left inexperienced staff coping with burgeoning applications from two distinct groups – committed students who had been waiting for months or years to come to Australia, sometimes beginning their courses online from home, and a “different type of student” attracted by Australia’s relaxed employment rules.
“You’ve got two groups of students in your surge and not enough public servants to process the applications,” said Ms Field, a consultant and former regulator. “And then you’ve got newly recruited public servants who potentially don’t have the expertise to distinguish between those two groups.”
Meanwhile, agents and colleges have been implicated in criminal activities uncovered in a joint investigation by The Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers, 60 Minutes television programme and streaming service Stan. They reported that 14 allegedly “corrupt” colleges had helped 190 South Korean women enter Australia to work in the sex industry.
Home affairs minister Clare O’Neil responded by announcing that former treasury secretary Martin Parkinson, lawyer Joanna Howe and consultant John Azarias would lead a “comprehensive review” of Australia’s migration system. She told the ABC that the system was “essentially being used to facilitate wrongdoing”.
The higher education regulator has warned institutions to monitor the activities of their agents and the foreigners they enrol. “Education providers delivering to overseas students are responsible for ensuring that their education agents act ethically, honestly and in the best interest of overseas students,” the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency asserted in a “sector alert”.
Ms Field said the media revelations were “sadly not new. Part of the immigration system has for decades been using student visas and cheap fees as a means of trying to bring people into the country. It’s been a fringe part of international education, unfortunately, for a long time.”
She did not expect the revelations to prompt a further crackdown on student visas. “But the government response will need to be measured, to pick up these problems and deal with them.”