Year-plus Australian visa delays hit Chinese PhD hopefuls

Success rate for Chinese doctoral applicants now well below other significant source countries

January 20, 2020
Source: Getty
Join the queue: a Chinese student claims to have a list of 226 compatriots who have been waiting for at least two months for visa approval

The proportion of Chinese PhD candidates whose Australian visa applications are approved has fallen dramatically as processing delays lengthen.

Success rates for Chinese applicants who seek visas from outside Australia are now well below those for other significant source countries. While the number of visa applications from Chinese doctoral candidates has risen steadily over the past decade, the proportion that are granted has declined over the past three years.

Visa grants have fallen to 69 per cent of the number of applications lodged this financial year, down from 79 per cent last year, 88 per cent in 2017-18 and 104 per cent in 2016-17. The success rate for other nationalities over that period ranged between 88 and 96 per cent.

The dwindling prospects for Chinese applicants are not reflected in Department of Home Affairs statistics, which suggest that visa grant rates are higher than for most other nationalities.

However, these figures do not include breakdowns of the different types of student visas. While Chinese undergraduates face relatively few hurdles in securing visas, doctoral candidates face extra scrutiny because they may be researching sensitive technologies.

Moreover, the DHA methodology for calculating visa grant rates – the number of grants divided by the sum of grants and rejections – overlooks visa applications caught up in processing delays.

The DHA says processing times for applications from China are among the shortest of any country, but again it does not offer breakdowns by visa type.

A Chinese materials science student, who said he has been awaiting word on his postgraduate research visa application for seven months, has compiled a list of 226 compatriots who he says have been waiting for at least two months.

Around 150 have waited at least five months and 13 more than a year. According to DHA statistics, 75 per cent of student visa applications from China are processed within a fortnight.

The student, who asked not to be named, said many Chinese applicants’ scholarships would expire soon. “DHA is leaving us in visa limbo,” he said. “They tend not to refuse or grant our applications, and simply inform us to wait.”

Screenshots of DHA emails suggest that complaints attract pro forma responses saying that applicants’ concerns have been “addressed” and further communications will be ignored. One student who complained about delays last March and again in September was told that “we have not identified any issues within our jurisdiction”, and was advised to follow up if necessary next July.

Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, said that, under a change introduced several years ago, applications for visas involving fields that could “compromise Australia’s intellectual property” must be scrutinised by three national security agencies.

He said other study destination countries provided a service that tracked the progress of visa applications. “We don’t do that, so a student could be waiting 18 months before they get a rejection or approval,” Mr Honeywood said.

“Students might be offered a scholarship to study [elsewhere] and lose the option if they patiently bide their time until Australia does its three-step national security filter.”

The DHA said processing times were driven by factors including the volume, completeness and complexity of applications.

“These requirements apply to all visa applicants irrespective of their country of origin,” the agency said. “Any suggestion otherwise is incorrect.”

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