Australian Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil talking about the Migration Strategy Report

Australia’s steps to drastically drop the numbers of foreign students to hit Bhutanese students hard

Australia, by far, has the largest numbers of Bhutanese students studying and working abroad and it has also taken some drastic steps with the release of the Migration Strategy.

A summary of the actions in the Migration Strategy Report is that test score for student visa will increase from IELTS (or equivalent) 5.5 to 6.0, for Temporary Graduate Visa (TGV) it is increased from 6.0 to 6.5 and for students undertaking an English Language Intensive Course it will increase from 4.5 to 5.0.

There will be Genuine Student test to replace the existing Genuine Temporary Entrant (GTE) requirement so that non-genuine students, whose primary intention is to work rather than study will be discouraged.

When the Genuine Student Test is applied instead of GTE then the Australian government will also look at academic progress and courses taken in school and college and see if it is relevant to the course being taken in Australia.

There will be additional scrutiny to international students applying for another student visa and temporary Graduate visa holders will be restricted from transferring back to student visas while onshore.

Maximum eligible age for a Temporary Graduate Visa will be reduced to 35 from 50.

Timeline of changes to come

With the many changes being announced the main question is now on the timeline of these changes.

Following the release of the Migration Strategy Report the Home Affairs Department also released a Migration Strategy Action plan listing the timeline for most of the above actions.

The increased IELTS requirements for the three segments and the Genuine Student Test replacing the current GTE will be implemented by early 2024.

The preventing of visa hopping from TGV to student visa will be implemented by early to mid 2024.

Applying greater and more targeted scrutiny to student visa applications from high risk providers will be implemented from late 2023.

The strengthening of requirements for international education providers will be implemented from 2024.

Bolstering the student visa integrity unit in the Department of Home Affairs with AUD 19 mn to reduce misuse of Australia’s student visa system will be implemented from late 2023.

On reducing the TGV eligibility age from 50 to 35 it is expected to happen within 2024.

VET and low-quality courses to be worse hit

The Chairperson of the Association of Bhutanese Education Consultants (ABEC), Palden Tshering, said that the new rules are a direct result of the housing crisis in Australia and it is cyclical thing with a clampdown every few years followed by an easing up.

Palden said that the students worst affected by these are a majority of young Bhutanese graduates who have enrolled in dodgy private colleges doing VET courses like cookery, hotel management, etc. which is set up in such a way that it  has minimal classes and plenty of time for work. These will be seen as the high-risk students and the institutes as high-risk education providers.

He said that since diploma courses are cheaper and easier many Bhutanese went for these courses and many of them may not have been guided well by their service providers. Palden said he has been trying to educate the market, but unfortunately nobody listened.

The Migration Strategy report quotes the Nixon Review saying exploitation of the student visa program ‘appears more prevalent’ among VET courses and recently the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade acknowledged ‘deep-seated integrity issues’ in parts of the sector including ‘ghost schools.’

The main concern for the Australian government is the highest ever net migration rate of 510,000 in the last financial year 2022-23 well above the initial forecast of 235,000.

The largest segment of these migrants is foreign students at around 60% and within these students the Australian government wants to target the lower quality courses and institutes.

The aim is to bring down migration to 250,000 by 2025.

International students and graduates make up the largest share of ‘permanently temporary’ migrants, with 108,000 having lived in Australia for 5 or more years. 19,000 are living for 9 years or more.

Australia has 650,000 international students.

The report says the numbers of international students staying in Australia on a second, or subsequent student visa has grown by over 30 per cent to more than 150,000 in 2022–23. The biggest growth in visa hopping has been in the VET sector, where there is a lower likelihood of a credible course progression. However, in 2022–23 almost 69,000 students granted a subsequent student visa in Australia have stayed in, or shifted into, studying in VET, compared to 42,000 students during the pre-pandemic in 2018–19.

A point of concern is that while the migration strategy has listed the TGV for the graduate (2 years), masters (3 years for research and 2 years for coursework) and PhD courses (3 years) it has not done so for diploma courses. Palden said that there is a high probability that some action will be coming against this too soon.

Ambassador’s advice

Bhutan’s Ambassador to Australia Sonam Tobgay said that nothing can be done as this applies to all countries.

He, however, said that while the strategy is released what needs to be seen next in the coming months is the legislation and how exactly will it be implemented.

He said the new rules will impact all Bhutanese students who do not qualify for the skilled visas.

The Ambassador said that Australia now wants younger and skilled people.

The Ambassador advised young people planning to come to study in Australia to do a lot of their own research too.

He said that those applying to high risk providers will experience slower visa processing time as priority will be given to quality institutes.

What is driving this ?

The huge migration increase has led to a housing, rental and cost of living crisis and also put pressure on infrastructure in Australia.

This has led it to become a hot political potato in Australia and with elections due in September 2025 the government wants to deal with the issue before that.

The Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said, “The new migration strategy will bring migration back to sustainable levels.”

The PM said, “In some cases the system is being abused. People are coming here and enrolling in courses that don’t really add substantially to either their skills base or to the national interest here. It is not in the interest of our neighbours or Australia that there not be a crackdown on this. We are determined to do that.”

The Australian Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said, “What we want to make sure is that when students come here to study and they are actually here to study… We don’t want to create a free for all where we see young people coming to our country who should be getting a great education and having a great experience, but find they are a victim of a labour scam getting exploited.”

She said, “One of the issues is not just how students’ visas are being used but the former government left open these incredibly long graduate visas where student do 4 years course and get (up to) 9 years in Australia on an extended graduate visa. It is not fair to them with no pathway to permanency and certainly not fair on us because it builds that population in the country of people who are permanently temporary. We are going to scale that right back to 2 years (TGV) and then transition to a skilled visa or (students) head back to their country.”

The Migration Review found over 50 per cent of Temporary Graduate visa holders are working in low skilled jobs much below their qualification.

A 2020 study found ‘underpayment of international students was systemic and widespread with 49% paid below the basic statutory minimum wage and 77% paid below the minimum casual hourly wage’.

Skilled visa is the only way out

One way out for Bhutanese who plan to work here are the Four-year Skills in Demand Visa with three visa pathways which will come up by the end of 2024 to replace the 482 visa.

The first is the Specialist Skills Pathway earning at least AUD 135,000 per annum for highly skilled specialists like Cyber Specialists, Software Engineers.

Next is the Core Skills Pathway like nurse, teacher etc. where the pay is AUD 70,000 and above per annum.

A third pathway coming up is a Skills in Demand visa for people in lower paid jobs like aged care etc.

All of the above provide a pathway to getting the Permanent Residency.

For Bhutanese looking to extend their stay or get a better pathway to permanent residency then some popular courses are Early Childhood Care, Nursing, Cyber Security, Social Work, Community Service and Engineering.

Australia has let it be known they still face massive shortages in Nurses, Aged Care, all kinds of engineers, Construction and any jobs to do with Australia’s transition to a net zero carbon emission economy.

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