‘Immense’ delays for Australia-bound PhD students ‘camouflaged’

One in five waiting more than a year for doctoral visas despite claims processing times have been speeded up

August 29, 2023
Source: iStock

A concerted effort by Australian immigration officials to process foreign doctoral candidates’ stalled visa applications appears to have achieved nothing for those at the front of the queue.

Almost one in five prospective PhD students is still waiting after lodging a visa application at least a year ago, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) has indicated, even though it says nine in 10 PhD visas are “finalised” within four months.

That time frame, published on the department’s “global processing times” web page, has fluctuated wildly over the past year. In August 2022, the department required nine months to resolve 90 per cent of doctoral candidates’ visa applications, according to the site. This figure had climbed to 12 months by January and 17 months by June, before plummeting to four months in July.

It does not take into account the more difficult visa applications, which require the department to perform identity, security, health and character checks. Some of these checks are undertaken by other government agencies and can prove very time-consuming, with security checks in particular causing delays that can last years, particularly for applicants from China, India, Iran and Pakistan.

The International Education Association of Australia said delays had been “camouflaged” in the visa processing statistics. “The time lag is immense,” said chief executive Phil Honeywood.

He said there should be more streamlining of security checks. “If a student application has to go through three different agencies…why couldn’t that happen at the same time rather than in chronological order?”

Science & Technology Australia agreed that a more efficient process would better serve the national interest. “The world’s best scientific and tech talent is fleet of foot,” said chief executive Misha Schubert.

“We are poised on the cusp of a decade of scientific and technological advancement, and the race is on for talent. We have to get really competitive in that space or we’re going to be left in the dust.”

Overall, government measures to improve processing times have benefited thousands of doctoral candidates and reduced the backlog of PhD visa applications by about 60 per cent since mid-2022.

On average, almost 900 PhD visas a month were issued last financial year, with a record 1,800 granted in March. Processing surged again in June, typically a busy month, with the department granting over 50 per cent more PhD visas than in pre-pandemic times.

DHA said that at the end of July this year, more than one-quarter of its PhD visa application caseload had been submitted within just the previous month, and two-fifths within the previous two months. “Fewer than 19 per cent” of the applications were more than 12 months old.

That last group appears to include doctoral candidates from China, India and Iran, who say there has been no progress on visa requests. “The majority of our applications still remain untouched,” said a member of a WeChat group comprising more than 300 Chinese people seeking Australian higher degree research visas.

The applicant claimed to be one of 80 group members who had been waiting for between 10 and 12 months, with another 63 waiting longer. None of their applications had been resolved in June or July, with just a handful processed in August.


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Reader's comments (1)

Whatever the reason, wouldn't the Australian government be ashamed of such an inefficient work schedule compared to visa processing in other countries?