Australia ‘clears’ student visa application logjam

But some applications remain in too-hard basket, while others suggest universities have let their guard down

February 11, 2023
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Australian officials have cleared a Covid logjam of student visa applications, with a record processing effort bringing the backlog “back to normal”, a Melbourne conference has heard.

But some visas languish in the too-hard basket, amid warnings that sloppy or fraudulent applications could trigger a rash of refusals.

Immigration boss Michael Willard told an International Education Association of Australia symposium that his department had finalised a record 217,000 overseas applications for student visas in the latter half of 2022, after the government boosted its visa-processing workforce by almost 500.

Mr Willard, first assistant secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, said requests for visas were being addressed more quickly than they were being submitted, even though fresh applications were arriving in record numbers. There were now fewer than 50,000 applications in the department’s in-tray “as opposed to June, when we had almost three times that number”.

International education operators are buoyant about the industry’s prospects, with Australia’s reputation rebounding as a study destination. “We’re returning to a post-Covid normal,” Navitas analyst Jonathan Chew told the conference. “The concerns around Covid, the pandemic, safety – they’ve all fallen away, pretty much.”

Melissa Banks, head of international education at the Australian Trade and Investment Commission, said offshore student visa applications had increased by around 44 per cent. “Australia’s recovery is gaining momentum and approaching pre-pandemic levels,” she said.

More than 360,000 visa applications were lodged overseas by students and their dependents last year – an “all-time record” that “far exceeded” pre-pandemic levels, according to Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary of the immigration department. But Dr Rizvi expressed reservations, saying the applications had been driven by Australia’s granting of unlimited work rights in a “tight” labour market. “Student visas [are] now more about low skill work than study,” he tweeted.

UTS College data analyst Phillip Allen said he was “suspicious” of the upsurge in visa applications as a reflection of growth. He said many of the applications may have come from longstanding students applying belatedly for visas that they had not needed when they were studying remotely from their homelands.

Such concerns relate particularly to students in China, who were instructed to return to their overseas campuses just weeks after Beijing reopened its borders this year. But Mr Willard said many of these students already held visas despite being stranded at home, and his Chinese caseload had risen by only a few thousand. “We’ve seen a slight uptick, but we haven’t seen a surge.”

The conference also heard that the visa refusal rate had plummeted in mid-2022 as officials focused on “high-quality applications” that they could process quickly. But the rejection rate rebounded as staff grappled with “older applications that were headed for refusal” because they contained inadequate or false information.

Mr Willard warned universities to be alert to “organised” fraud among would-be students. He said some universities had struggled to “reinvigorate” checks that had been mothballed during Covid.

The conference also heard that the recovery of foreign student demand had not been particularly strong at PhD level. This observation comes as Iranian doctoral candidates, some of whom have waited over three years for their visa applications to be processed, petition Australian ministers to “put an end to this discrimination”.

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