Politics Analysis

Overseas student visas entering a new phase

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Offshore student visa applications have risen significantly over the last few months (Screenshot via YouTube)

Home Affairs is desperately trying to cope with a huge surge in overseas student visa applications, many lured by the prospect of unlimited work rights. Dr Abul Rizvi reports.

AFTER FORMER Prime Minister Scott Morrison famously told temporary entrants in Australia to go home, denied most universities JobKeeper and denied any real support for temporary entrants who were stuck in Australia, many commentators considered Australia would struggle to attract overseas students once the pandemic was over.

Those commentators failed to take into account the attraction of unlimited work rights for students that former Immigration Minister Alex Hawke would subsequently provide. While Hawke’s policy would trash the reputation of Australia’s international education industry, it would also generate a massive increase in offshore student visa applications from students more interested in work than study.

Since international borders reopened, student arrivals and departures have accelerated quickly (see Chart 1).

(Data source: abs.gov.au)

The 97,350 excess of student arrivals over departures in the period December 2021 to March 2022 was to be expected given the number of students that had been prevented entry during the pandemic. While there is a traditional net outflow of students in June, this did not happen in June 2022 — there was instead a small excess of arrivals over departures.

There was the traditional excess of student arrivals over departures in July and August 2022 and a non-traditional excess of student arrivals in September 2022 — traditionally a month when there is an excess of departures over arrivals.

Offshore applications and grant rates

But movements data can often disguise what is really happening. Offshore visa application numbers give us a better indication of the level of interest in studying/working in Australia while grant rates tell us how the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) is managing the caseload.

Offshore student visa applications vary considerably from month to month. June is traditionally a strong month for offshore student visa applications while July, August and September are traditionally low application months (see Chart 2).

(Data source: data.gov.au)

In 2022, offshore student applications in June, July, August and September set new records by a significant margin.

In June 2022, there were 42,700 offshore student visa applications with the next highest number of June applications being 34,343 in June of 2018. In July 2022, there were 30,801 offshore student applications with the next highest July figure being 25,152 in 2019.

In August 2022, there were 25,580 offshore student applications with the next highest August figure being 19,201 in 2018. In September 2022, there were 24,344 offshore student applications with the next highest September figure being 18,142 in 2018.

In every month from June to September 2022, the number of offshore student visa applications has exceeded the previous record for that month by at least 5,000.

But this isn’t converting to similar records of offshore student visa grants because grant rates have fallen significantly, particularly in September (see Chart 3).

(Data source: data.gov.au)

It is likely that the lower grant rates are partly due to the DHA finding increased levels of fraud in the caseload as well as a shift in source countries. DHA may also be making greater use of the “genuine temporary entry” requirement as a basis to refuse applications.

For a department under severe resource pressure as well as pressure to speed up processing, a large caseload with low grant rates due to either fraud or use of a subjective criteria like “genuine temporary entry” represents a major waste of resources. DHA desperately needs to find a different way to manage the offshore student visa caseload.

It may be hoping the recently announced review of the migration system may find a solution. In this regard, the Albanese Government has announced Australia will return to restricted work rights for overseas students from 1 July 2023.

That is the right thing to do if we want our international education industry to focus on the delivery of quality education. But there needs to be a clear transition plan that alerts students and agents to the change, explains how limited work rights will be enforced and helps students who have become reliant on unlimited work rights to manage the transition.

Dr Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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