Australian visa system ‘favours China’

Efforts to recruit a diverse student mix undermined by policy paradox, as visa applicants from many countries are viewed with suspicion

May 16, 2021
Maneki neko also known as chinese fortune cat. Showcase with welcoming souvenir cats beckoning to enter
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Australian universities’ attempts to achieve a more heterogenous mix of international students are hamstrung by visa settings that favour China, according to the Innovative Research Universities (IRU) network.

In a submission to the federal education department, the IRU says that visa processing practices reward the recruitment of students from countries where people tend to follow rules – “notably China” – at a time the government is “explicitly concerned” about universities’ over-reliance on China.

Increasing the range of source countries is a “worthy goal”, the submission says, yet many of the countries likely to reduce China’s predominance in the student mix are deemed “more risky” from a visa programme perspective.

Authorities’ concerns that students from such countries “are not acceptable visa recipients” are among a suite of unresolved issues undermining policy coherence, the IRU says in a submission on Australia’s new international education strategy.

“The…commitment to a whole of government approach to international education and research is badly stretched by its response to concerns about foreign interference in universities,” the submission says.

The comments reflect concerns that the government’s new Foreign Relations Act, also ostensibly aimed at China, is discouraging universities from pursuing agreements with universities in countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. National security concerns also appear to have caused years-long delays in the processing of postgraduate students’ visas.

But outright visa rejections often stem from suspicions that applicants are seeking back-door work or residency opportunities. The IRU submission says that such perceptions, which feed distrust and even “hostility” about international education, reflect misconceptions about foreign students.

Just one in seven foreign students goes on to seek residency, the IRU says. The government should spell out, it says, the “valuable link” between the education of thousands of overseas students “and a proportion of them subsequently being accepted to stay in Australia as migrants”.

Nevertheless, “reasonable questions” about the impact of international education should be “taken seriously”, the submission continues. “These concerns require more than information and publicity material,” it adds, saying that parts of the government’s consultation paper seem “overwhelmed by marketing considerations” rather than “harder” questions.

The submission suggests that China’s domination of international enrolments is exaggerated, at least in some quarters. It says that Chinese nationals comprise roughly 17 per cent of postgraduate research students and a similar proportion of the IRU’s overseas cohort – figures on par with the country’s share of global population.

The paper also suggests reducing red tape by removing requirements for institutions to obtain “distinct” approval to be listed on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students. Providers and their courses are already registered and accredited by regulators such as the Tertiary Education Standards and Quality Agency, the submission points out.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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