Perth, Australia

Australia announces tougher measures over student visas

With more measures to come

On 26 August, the Australian Government announced a package of measures aimed to support the integrity in the international education system and to support genuine international students.

The Australian Government has increased the amount of savings the international students will need in order to get a student visa. From 1 October 2023, international students will need to show evidence of AUD 24,505 in savings, which is a 17 percent increase on current levels.

It says this requirement has not been indexed since 2019 and needs to increase to reflect higher living expenses.

“This change will ensure students coming to Australia to study can afford to support themselves and will not face increased risk of exploitation due to an urgent need for employment,” said the government.

International students should also be ready to provide additional documents as the Australian Government will apply additional scrutiny to high-risk cohorts and ask for additional documents to prevent fraud in applications.

The government says it will end ‘concurrent enrollment’ which is basically getting enrollment into two courses on the same visa.

Students use this loophole to downgrade their courses for cheaper ones usually in dubious institutions with the main aim of working and not studying.

Ravi Lochan Singh of Global Reach in Koala International Education News said that ordinarily if a student comes to Australia for a Bachelors course but wants to shift to a vocational course then a new visa is required.

To get around this, the agents and colleges first wait for the student to reach Australia, as the agents and the colleges have realised that it is much easier if the student simply applies for a fresh visa for the diploma onshore.

The student who would have definitely been refused the visa offshore is nearly certain to get the visa for the same course onshore, and this is evident from the visa success rate.

According to Ravi, the agent organises to cancel the original study plan and enrolls the student in two programmes – a vocational education diploma as well as a bachelor’s degree that may start two years hence and obtains two Confirmations of Enrolment (COEs). There is no need for the Bachelor’s degree to be packaged with the diploma.

However, thanks to this, the Home Affairs is not able to apply 8202 which is cancellation of the visa. This is because the Provider Registration and International Student Management System (PRISMS) shows the current diploma course and the future COE for the Bachelor’s degree.

Singh pointed to Instagram posts showing so-called “ghost colleges” with no students in them and said that he had been told “25 of the colleges are owned directly or indirectly to agents in South Asia and this is a clear conflict of interest.”

The Australian Government said it has closed this loophole now, which allows education providers to shift international students who have been in Australia for less than six months from genuine study to an arrangement designed to facilitate access to work in Australia.

A sharp uptake in the use of the concurrent function in 2023 has also been uncovered, as in the first half of 2023, 17,000 concurrent enrolments were created, compared to approximately 10,500 for the same period in 2019 and 2022 combined.

“Recent investigations have identified this misuse of ‘concurrent enrolment’ as an integrity issue for the international sector. This change takes effect immediately,” said the government.

The Australian Minister for Education, Jason Clare, said, “International student numbers are almost back to where they were before the pandemic. That’s a good thing. International education is an extraordinarily valuable national asset. But there are also challenges in international education.  As students have come back, so have some dodgy and unscrupulous players who are trying to take advantage of them.” 

“This change will work to stop predatory ‘second’ providers from enrolling students before they have studied for the required six months at their first provider,” he added.

The Australian government will also consider using its powers under Section 97 of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act (ESOS Act) to issue suspension certificates to high-risk education providers. A suspension certificate means providers would not be able to recruit international students.

It will immediately begin consulting on possible regulations to set clear grounds for the use of suspension certificates, such as application rates with fraudulent documents and provider refusal rates.

The Australian government is particularly concerned about more than 200 providers that currently have visa refusal rates higher than 50 percent.

Minister for Skills and Training, Brendan O’Connor, said it is bringing changes that allow the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) more scope to keep substandard, unethical, dishonest or non-compliant practices out of the VET sector.

Owners and senior managers at Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) are required to comply with the ‘Fit and Proper Person’ Requirements as a condition of registration.

There will be an expanded list of matters that will be considered when determining if a person is fit and proper, including a broad power for ASQA to consider conduct that suggests a deliberate pattern of unethical behavior. These changes are agreed to by State and Territory Skills Ministers in Perth.

The Australian government said it is considering further measures to strengthen the integrity in the international education system, as part of the Migration Strategy, which is due to be released later this year.

The Minister for Home Affairs, Clare O’Neil, said, “International education is our fourth largest export – it’s essential that we maintain our global reputation for quality education. Our government has no tolerance for people who exploit students.”

She added, “Our message is clear – the party is over, the rorts (dishonest practice) and loopholes that have plagued this system will be shut down.”

According to ABC news Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil and Immigration Minister Andrew Giles announced that the Pandemic Event visa (subclass 408) would be closed to all new applicants from September 2.

Existing visa holders will remain lawful until their current visa expires, with the ability to extend it for another six months at a cost of AUD 405.

But from February 2024, the visa will be closed to all applicants as it will be completely scrapped.

The program was established in 2020 to support international students who were trapped in Australia during the pandemic, and to fill labour shortages due to international border closures.

According to the latest figures from Home Affairs, more than 17,000 students were granted a 408 visa in 2022, compared to around 3,000 students in 2021.

“We’re providing an opportunity for people who hold a Pandemic Event visa to explore another visa option, or plan to leave Australia.”

The government said people who were not eligible for another visa would have to leave the country.

“This will provide certainty to our visa system now that the circumstances that drove the operation of the (Pandemic Event) visa no longer exist,” a statement said.

ABEC Responds

Meanwhile, the Chairperson of the Association of Bhutanese Education Consultancies (ABEC), Palden Tshering said, “We recognize there is a real problem when education consultants and private colleges are interested in short term gain.”

“They tend to market themselves aggressively by intentionally misleading, unsuspecting students with statements such as, ‘lower IELTS and TOEFL accepted’, ‘previous visa refusal accepted’, ‘study and age gap accepted’, MC maturity not required,” he added.

He said statements like this already cross the line and border on misinformation because it directly contradicts everything that they have been briefed about from the Australian department of home affairs.

This marketing approach is geared toward high risk students who are guided into high risk private colleges that have been red flagged with high visa refusals.

He said it’s the responsibility of every student to be aware of changes in law with regard to their application, to the institution and visa of the country they apply to, and the role of consultants and counselors is to ensure that the details are provided for them to make an informed decision.

Palden said recent changes announced by the Australian home affairs is a clear message to all students that they need to comply with the regulations in their student visa. Failure to do so will result in visa cancellations and potential deportations.

More changes will be implemented from 2024.

He said there are still Bhutanese that are dealing with agents based in India, Nepal and even Bangladesh that leaves students exposed and unprotected.

Background

The tightening measures by the Australian Government over student visas is a deliberate series of continuing actions based on the findings of the 190-page Migration Review report by Australia’s Home Affairs Department released in March 2023 that raises red flags on how education visas are being misused as opportunities to work, and it recommends tighter screening of student visa applicants, and even measures to shorten the stay of international students after graduation.

There is growing concern over the 1.8 million ‘Temporary Permanent Migrants’ in Australia who are temporary migrants with the right to work, and the largest cohort in this group are students and former students.

The report had said it is not in Australia’s national interest to maintain a large proportion of temporary entrants with no pathway to citizenship, as it undermines their democratic resilience and social cohesion.

It also said the majority of Australians do not want a ‘guest worker culture,’ or such a large population of temporary migrants. 

The report also said that while international students and graduates bring many benefits to Australia, international students place pressure on housing and local infrastructure and increase the competition for work for their domestic peers (Australians) while studying, as both cohorts seek low-skill part-time jobs in retail, accommodation and food services industries. 

The report says as a matter of ethics, migrants’ temporary stay should be limited by either facilitating a permanent pathway or requiring temporary migrants to leave Australia.

It said the Genuine Temporary Entry (GTE) criterion for visas could be replaced by a new Genuine Student (GS) criterion, which would require the applicant’s main migration purpose to be study in Australia.

The report says that the minimal requirement of 5.5 IELTS score for student visas is too low and says it should be raised to guard education quality and also ensure graduates have better chances in the labour market.

It says most of the overseas student graduates are in fields with no relevance to Australia’s urgent skill needs with nearly half in Management and Commerce, despite there being no domestic shortage of such graduates.

At the time, the Home Affairs Minister, Clare O’Neil, stated there would be a series of legislative changes in the months ahead, in a phased manner, in response to the Migration Review report’s recommendations.

Just a few months after the release of the above report, Bhutan started seeing higher rejection rates of students as visa agents started asking more questions and calling more Bhutanese students to verify if they are genuine students.

Canada

With Australia getting more expensive and tougher, many Bhutanese students are opting for Canada as a second choice.

However, according to ICEF Monitor, like the Australian Government, the Canadian Government has had the cause to review whether its international education sector is regulated sufficiently.

Canada’s international enrolments have been growing rapidly, and there were 30 percent more foreign students in the country in 2022 than in the previous year.

The country’s immigration department, IRCC, is currently exploring a new Trusted Institution Framework that could be in place by 2024, with the intention of significantly raising the bar for Canadian education institutions hosting international students. IRCC has yet to release details of the Trusted Institution Framework, but the core concept is to compel Canadian schools, colleges, and universities to “demonstrate that they are reliable partners with regard to sustainable intake, identifying genuine students, monitoring and reporting on their compliance, and providing a safe and enriching experience for their international students.”

The cost of living in Canada is understood to be more expensive than Australia, and housing is equally tough if not more difficult, with getting jobs also becoming an issue.

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