Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil says Australia will tighten requirements for international students and bring other changes as students are working and not studying

Cracks start to appear in the Australia Dream

Pema (name changed), a working professional in her early thirties was very sure she would get her visa to Australia given her educational qualifications, work experience, IELTs score, acceptance letter from her college and her own sister located in Perth, who was willing to host her. 

Pema was so sure she would get her visa that she had resigned from her job where she was a senior employee, and the company had even hired her replacement.

However, one fateful afternoon when she was busy cleaning her home and had her phone on charge, her younger sister came running to her saying there was a call.

By the time Pema reached her phone, it was too late. The phone call was from the visa section of the Australian High Commission.

Pema called back six times and dropped a message to explain why she missed the call.

However, there was no response and a few hours later Pema got a call from her consultant saying her visa had been rejected.

Pema said, “The call had been from the visa officer to ask questions on my statement of purpose and other things. Just because I missed the call my visa was cancelled.”

Pema’s consultant informed her that the rejection letter did not give any specific reason but cited certain immigration laws and rejected her.

Pema’s first cousin brother recently did not even get a call but a rejection letter saying the same thing.

The story of Pema and her cousin are not isolated incidents, but part of a deliberate strategy of tighter and stricter checking of documents and applications of all international students.

Stricter checks

This stricter checks were put in place after a comprehensive 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, recommends tighter screening of student visa applicants and recommends even measures to shorten the stay of international students after graduation.

The Chairperson of the Association of Bhutanese Education Consultancies (ABEC), Palden Tshering said that the stricter checks should not come as a matter of surprise as the Review Report had been released in March 2023 recommending stricter measures.

Palden said that Australian High Commission as part of this had also informed the ABEC and its members that the Genuine Temporary Entrant (GTE) review for a visa would be stricter. 

GTE is to ensure that people are there for education and not to seek residency, will take the course genuinely and will head back to their country once they are done.

Palden said that with the enhanced checks the key thing for an applicant now is to ensure that they write their own statement of purpose and fill up the forms themselves. He said the questions from the visa officers will be based on the statement of purpose and the documents submitted.

The CEO of Education Pro Consultancy, Tshering Nidup, said that GET review has become stricter. He said earlier the norm was that if 100 people applied for visas only five or at the maximum ten would get calls with further enquiries from the visa agent, but now around 50 get called with various questions.

Nidup said his own view is that the Australian authorities are focusing more on the education system and they feel that learn and work is affecting the quality of the courses and so they are discouraging this indirectly.

Nidup said it is not only the visa officers who are being strict but the Universities themselves have become stricter as they also look at the chances of a candidate getting a visa and do not issue the offer letter if they feel the person does not fulfill the GTE requirements.

When the assessment for visa is done there are three levels with level 3 being the highest immigration risk, level 2 being the medium risk and level 1 being the lowest immigration risk.

Bhutan is currently at level 2 which is better than India, Nepal and Pakistan at level 3. This is why the acceptance rate for Bhutan has been so high in the past and so many could get through easily.

However, the good times are changing with stricter GTE reviews.

Nidup said that during the pandemic and right after it Australia (which faced a severe labour shortage) was very liberal in its assessment of student visas and Bhutanese applications were treated like level 1 applicants, but now things have changed.

Married couples who submitted marriage certificates are now being asked detailed questions about each other at the same time in separate calls..

Given the new reality, the more established consultants have become choosier about their candidates to avoid higher rejection rates.

Consultants say the rejection rates will go higher.

A consultant, on the condition of anonymity, said what does not help the case of Bhutanese students is that a significant number of them landing in Australia get swayed to drop from their University for which they got the visa and choose a cheaper college.

The swaying is done by Bhutanese there who get a commission of around AUD 500 per student they bring.

He said when the immigration officers follow up to check if the student has reached the University they say there was a no show. This later affects the student when he or she goes to extend his or her visas after studies.

Australian Home Affairs Minister says student visa under more scrutiny

The Australian Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil has stated there will be a series of legislative changes in the months ahead in a phased manner in response to the Migration Review report’s recommendations.

Based on the Migration Review Report Minister Clare O’Neil on 27 April 2023 unveiled the outlines of what will becomes Australia’s Migration Strategy.

The outline says they have let abuses of the visa system go unchecked.

‘We have a growing ‘permanently temporary’ cohort in Australia – this has grown to 173,000 migrants who have been in Australia for 5 years or more on a temporary work or student visa.’

It says recognizing Australia’s place as a destination of choice for international students, they need to ensure that all international students are genuinely in Australia to study, including by tightening requirements and by strengthening the quality assurance of education providers

The strategy says it wants to address ‘permanent temporariness’, by: ensuring migrants have clarity on their prospects for permanent residence – whether that means staying here or returning home.

The minister in her remarks at the press event said, “What has emerged is a system where it is increasingly easy for migrants to come to Australia in search of a low paid job, but increasingly harder for migrants to come here with the skills we desperately need.”

She said, “One of the reasons there is so much exploitation is because we have allowed low-wage migration programs to operate in the shadows, for example, through exploitation of our international student visa system.”

Minister Clare O’Neil said, “Instead of pretending that some students are here to study when they are actually here to work, we need to look to create proper, capped, safe, tripartite pathways for workers in key sectors, such as care.”

The minister said that they need to make sure the international student system has integrity and she will be working with her Australian ministerial colleagues heading Employment and also Education to look at tightening the requirements for international students studying in Australia, and ensure that students are actually here to study.

The minister said, “This is not about reducing the number, but I think it’s inevitable when we lift standards that there might be some implication for numbers.”

She said strengthening how the international student system and migration systems interact will be a substantial piece of work that they will share more information on in the coming months.

In its bid to attract more skilled migrants the Australian government increased the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold (TSMIT) from the current rate of AUD 53,900 to AUD 70,000 from 1 July 2023. This means those earning below this will not qualify for this visa category.

The Migration report

At the heart of it all is the 190-page Migration Report commissioned by the Home Affairs Department, which while giving a broader review of the entire migration system, also gives a lot of focus on student visas.

On the positive side, the report looks at how better to retain skilled workers and give them better pathways but at the same time it takes a dim view of the non-skilled ‘temporary permanent category’ where most Bhutanese fall. 

It particularly attacks the education visa which it says is not attracting the skills Australia needs, is being misused for work and is increasing the ‘Temporary Permanent Migrants’ which it says is not desirable.

The report says that there are 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.

It says as a result there is higher demand for permanent residency, but only a limited supply.

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

The report says the majority of Australians do not want a ‘guest worker culture,’ or such a large population of temporary migrants. 

It says that while international students and graduates bring many benefits to Australia, international students place pressure on housing and local infrastructure. These population costs are borne by local communities that might not benefit from the value international education exports bring to the economy, which are often concentrated with education providers said the report.

“International students increase the competition for work for their domestic peers. While studying, both cohorts seek low-skill part-time jobs in retail, accommodation and food services industries. Post-graduation, both cohorts compete for entry-level positions in various professional occupations…This may result in worsening employment outcomes for domestic students while studying and after graduation,” the report adds.

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 also wants to ensure that migration-driven population growth does not place too much strain on the domestic community.

The report notes the migration system creates incentives for non-genuine students and unscrupulous profit-seeking education providers as the student visa can be used by international students who seek a credential, rather than an education, or can be used solely to gain access to the Australian labour market.

It says some institutions have a profit motive to enroll greater volumes of international students at the expense of quality applicants or learning outcomes. At its worst this includes institutions who use the system to sell student visas as a way of accessing Australia’s labour market.

The report said several submissions suggested the GTE criterion could be replaced by a new Genuine Student (GS) criterion, which would require the applicant’s main migration purpose to be study in Australia.

That is, a student visa should not be used simply to gain access to the Australian labour market or to establish residence for other purposes.

The report says Australia has many more students than could be accommodated in its permanent skilled migration program.

The report recommends more flexible working hours for students to ensure they are not exploited and also where internships and work without pay for college related courses are not added to the working hours.

However, at the same time it says there are risks that without proper checks and balances the Student visa could become a de facto demand-driven labour visa that negatively affects (primarily lower skill) sectors of the labour market.

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.

Around 50% of temporary Graduate visa holders end up in jobs at the lowest skill levels despite being qualified for top level versus 20-30% for domestic students.

International graduates have, on average, lower wages than their domestic peers both initially and after three years which is a strong indicator of international students’ ability to integrate into Australia’s labour market. More than 40 per cent of international graduates’ work in lower skilled roles post study, including many with qualifications in areas of shortage e.g. ICT and engineering.

It says that many graduates do not do well in the labour market suggesting the best thing for Australia and these migrants may be for them to return home.

It says international student numbers are large and growing, meaning this cohort of temporary migrants contribute significantly to costs associated with population growth and the proportion of temporary migrants in Australia, as compared with permanent residents and citizens.

It says notably and contrary to widely held perceptions, given labour market shortages generally require workers with 3–5 years of work experience recent graduates are not automatically well-suited to filling short-term labour market shortages.

The report for international students recommends increasing English language requirements associated with the student or graduate visa.

It says that the graduate visa should have its total duration tied to how long it takes to identify high potential graduates who will succeed on a permanent labour visa, and so the graduate visa duration should be minimized so that former students do not become ‘permanently temporary’, or contribute to growing Australia’s temporary population.

It recommends that in a very narrow set of circumstances, provide a more certain direction to permanent residence pathway using a mix of indicators, including student attributes, performance and level of study

The report says it is time for the government to specifically review the student working hours cap.

It says more work needs to be done outside of the migration system to support international students to transition to work and access legal remedies in response to exploitative wages and conditions in the labour market.

Finally, the report recommends a move from the Genuine Temporary Entrant (GTE) criterion to a new Genuine Student test.

The report also recommends that migration be based on net overseas migration (which accounts for both permanent and temporary residents), rather than simply relying on permanent migration caps. This basically means smaller numbers.

The report wants to resolve and avoid the ‘permanently temporary’ migration.

It asks for a review of the drivers that have created a continuing ‘permanently temporary’ cohort with a view to ensuring future cohorts do not emerge.

Back to 48 hours a fortnight from 1st July 2023

In what is additional bad new for Bhutanese students working in Australia the unlimited working hours granted from January 2022 to June 2023 due to the pandemic shortages comes to an end by the end of the month

Starting form 1st July 2023 Bhutanese on student visas can work only 48 hours per fortnight or 24 hours per week.

The re-imposition of the working hours will impact those Bhutanese students who had paid their first semester fees and planned to pay the other semesters by working there. They will now have to factor in limited working hours from July 2023 onwards and its impact on their income.

However, international students working in the aged care sector will be exempt from the 48 hour per fortnight work limit until 31 December, 2023.

The Australian government had earlier announced committed that it will grant a two additional years of stay for graduates from certain skilled courses for which there is a shortage in Australia.

Once the working cap is back on then three sections of the Migration Act 1958 would become activated again and it gives the power to cancel a visa if its holder has not complied with a condition of the visa.

At the end of the day, Australia, with a small domestic population and large land mass surrounded by high density population countries has always taken migration very seriously, and it is one of the key political issues.

There seems to now be an apparent backlash against the huge ‘temporary permanent migration’ numbers especially in the form of international students with the Minister for Home Affairs calling the migration system broken and committing to more rigorous checks and even a slightly smaller migration program.

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