Prospective PhDs waiting more than two years for Australian visas

Australian officials mute as exasperated foreigners watch study and career opportunities evaporate

November 26, 2020
Najeeb Ullah
Wind turbine engineer Najeeb Ullah: ‘I thought I would get my visa within two or three months but I was totally wrong, and now I regret my decisions’

Dozens of Pakistani students have been waiting up to 30 months to learn whether they will be allowed Down Under for doctoral studies as the pandemic exposes Australia’s dismissive treatment of people who fortify its research training community.

Some 50 Pakistanis say they have received scant word on the progress of visa applications lodged over the past two and a half years. Many have deferred scholarships multiple times, with some forced to switch universities after offers expired. Some have paid “huge fees” retaking lapsed medical and language tests. Others have run out of options, with stipends and places cancelled.

The applicants include students and lecturers in physics, chemistry, engineering and health, with specialities including solar cells, brain-computer interfaces and synthetic cancer drugs.

Some say they have received no advice from Australia’s Department of Home Affairs since applying for visas in mid-2019. Enquiries to the department elicit “generic emails that your application is under routine processing”, said mechanical engineer Najeeb Ullah.

Civil engineer Tahir Saeed said the wait had been “torturous” for his family. Rizwan Younas, a Quetta-based chemical engineering lecturer, said the department should either accept or reject applications within 60 days. “It’s not just a visa, it’s my future,” he said.

Computer engineer Suleman Rasheed said the applicants were not seeking special treatment. “Just grant us our visas so, once borders are open, we’ll start our PhD journey.”

Times Higher Education understands that visa applications from South Asians wanting to undertake STEM-related PhDs are routinely referred to security agencies, which take turns to assess the risk of intellectual property theft.

A Home Affairs spokesperson said character and security checking by other agencies could take “several months” and explained that “offshore services” related to visa assessments – including health checks and biometric collection – were being affected by Covid-19.

But at least 27 applications were lodged well before the pandemic, which has only slowed processing because previously submitted evidence has passed its use-by date. Ironically, pandemic-related disruptions are the only thing stopping some students from abandoning Australia after having held firm initially because they felt “ethically bound” to their prospective supervisors.

Physicist Abdul Khaliq said some friends were eyeing other countries. “But we are stuck in the middle of nowhere as we can’t meet the requirements due to the pandemic restrictions,” he said.

Medical researcher Braira Wahid, who said she has heard nothing from Home Affairs since mid-2019, is now looking elsewhere. “My research portfolio is quite strong,” she said.

Australia relies on foreigners to undertake science-related PhDs. They outnumber domestic students in areas such as engineering and information technology.

Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, said other countries updated prospective students about the status of visa applications, but Home Affairs waited for clearances from all agencies before providing any useful information. He said the department should “initiate some feedback mechanism” to alleviate applicants’ “obvious stress”.

A recent Home Affairs report shows that average waiting times have blown out as the pandemic reduces processing activity. The median processing time for postgraduate research visas soared from 20 days in the March quarter to 244 days between April and June – suggesting that the pandemic has exposed a logjam of stalled applications that are normally hidden in the statistics by high processing volumes.

Home Affairs said the data “should be viewed through the lens of Covid-19” and did not reflect the quality of its operations.

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