An arm’s-length approach to the scrutiny of visa applications has encouraged an explosion in enrolments by students with questionable skills, according to a former integrity chief with the Australian High Commission in New Delhi.
Andrew Durston, a 27-year veteran of Australia’s immigration department, said a rule change that put universities in charge of vetting student visa applications had fostered a self-fulfilling culture of leniency in which inadequately prepared students were waved through the gatekeeping process.
Mr Durston said some universities were “not looking terribly hard” for fraudulent visa applications, the main factor contributing to the institutional risk ratings that helped to determine the amount of evidence would-be students needed to supply.
This forced risk ratings downward, allowing many South Asians to lodge visa applications without documents confirming their English-language skills or their capacity to support themselves financially.
Mr Durston now runs a consultancy that conducts background checks of would-be students on universities’ behalf. He said some people intending to undertake postgraduate courses in Australia asked for the interviews to be conducted in their local languages “because they don’t feel confident in English”.
“If you’re not confident to have a simple conversation with us in English, how are you going to do a postgraduate degree at a top-50 university?” he asked.
Mr Durston was speaking to Times Higher Education ahead of a widely promoted episode of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s investigative programme Four Corners. The episode, airing on 6 May, claims that universities are waiving their English-entry requirements to recruit more high-paying international students.
It also claims that burgeoning international recruitment has coincided with record numbers of academic misconduct cases, and that excessive proportions of overseas students – who comprise all enrolments in some courses – have affected general academic standards.
Mr Durston said that “the policy pendulum between control and facilitation” had swung to a “much more facilitative setting”. He was particularly concerned about Nepal, a “relatively poor country” where the “extraordinary” enrolment growth was “out of whack” with locals’ capacity to afford expensive Australian education.
Nepalese visa applications for higher education study have increased from about 4,000 annually at the beginning of the decade to 14,000 last financial year. Despite this, the visa approval rate has increased by almost 20 per cent.
“Something doesn’t add up, in terms of my experience in that region,” Mr Durston said. “When you see these massive increases, you have to ask whether it’s sustainable from an integrity perspective. When you take your foot off the brake, you have to be careful you’re not rolling downhill.”
He said that when immigration officials asked for documentation about Nepalese applicants’ English skills, their agents often produced letters attesting that they had received school instruction in English. “They think, that should satisfy the immigration department. Well, it doesn’t,” he said.
Mr Durston said universities were reliant on agents to check the bona fides of Nepalese applicants. While there were good agents everywhere, some did not inspire confidence that they were competent enough to verify the credibility of applicants.
Others appeared to be “part of the problem in generating students who aren’t up to scratch, or who require fiddling of documents to be seen to be credible”.
The Association of Australian Education Representatives in India, which opened a Nepal chapter last year, has raised concerns about the activities of some agents in the country.