Australian student visa applications rise strongly after tough three years
More than 74,000 applications were lodged in September quarter 2013, the highest for the quarter in the past four years.
A large increase in international student visa applications in Australia has raised the sector’s hopes of moving on from the slump caused by a “perfect storm” of a series of migration rule changes, bad publicity about the nation’s safety, and the strong dollar.
More than 74,000 student visa applications were lodged in the September 2013 quarter, 7.1% higher than the same period in 2012 and the highest for this quarter in the last four years, according to figures published by the Department of Immigration this week.
The strong signs follow a tough three years for Australia’s international education sector, which experienced rapid growth until a series of developments, including violent crimes committed against foreign students and a government clampdown on misuse of the system as a pathway to permanent residency.
A 2011 discussion paper noted “the rapidity and magnitude of changes to migration and student visa policy settings”. Other problems were the strength of the Australian dollar, bad publicity from education provider closures that displaced thousands of students, the effects of the global financial crisis, and increased competition from international education providers elsewhere.
The executive director of the International Education Association of Australia, Phil Honeywood, welcomed the latest increase in visa applications, saying the original crackdown caused “pain” to the sector but was motivated by genuine concerns.
Honeywood said some people had enrolled in two-year diplomas in cooking or hairdressing at a cost of $10,000 a year as a pathway to permanent residency.
In 2011 a report by government-appointed reviewer Michael Knight said Labor’s changes were “not made arbitrarily or capriciously”. The number of international student enrolments grew from 274,060 in 2002 to 619,119 in 2010, including a rapid increase in the vocational education and training sector. This growth was driven by the fact students were “virtually guaranteed” permanent residence if they completed courses related to “very long lists” of particular occupations in demand and skilled jobs.
“Some less reputable institutions set up courses with no serious educational purpose but basically designed to get fees from students en route to a migration outcome. Further down the food chain some nefarious operators set up whole institutions as nothing more than a migration scam,” Knight wrote in his report.
“Then there were some unscrupulous education agents on impossibly high commissions, funnelling students with fraudulent documents into any course irrespective of the quality of the course or the student.”
Knight said changes the Rudd government put in place in 2009 and 2010 created a perception in some parts of the world that Australia had “rolled up the welcome mat”.
They included stronger scrutiny of applicants in Australia’s major markets, leading to an increased rejection rate. Applications were required to have access to $18,000 to cover expenses for each year of study, up from $12,000. The government also revoked the list of migration occupations in demand, weakening the link between studying and permanent residence.
Since that time, authorities have sought to make Australia a more attractive destination.
From March 2012, “streamlined visa processing” ensured that prospective students faced a less onerous application process if they provided confirmation of enrolment from a participating university in Australia at bachelor, masters or doctoral degree level. Such applications were treated as though they were a lower migration risk, regardless of their country of origin.
“Streamlined processing has been very good for public universities because they’re the only ones that have been allowed to have it,” Honeywood said.
“You haven’t had to have as much paperwork, you’ve been judged as having a low level risk … but it’s meant that other key players have been left out of the loop, including some high-quality private colleges and also some public TAFEs.”
The Coalition government has announced plans to extend streamlined visa processing to up to 22 “low-risk, non-university providers” such as colleges and TAFEs.
It has also flagged changes to assessment levels and the easing of financial evidence requirements, so long as the funds were from a close relative of the student application. The immigration minister, Scott Morrison, said this would mean students from a number of key markets would be able to apply for a student visa with up to $40,000 less in the bank.
The government statistics, released this week, showed there were 346,965 international student visa holders in Australia at the end of September. Offshore student visa lodgements increased by 27.6% – and total student visa grants rose by 13.6% – in the September quarter compared with the same period in the previous year. The application success rate was 94.3%.
Honeywood said a lot of factors might be influencing the upward trend, but it was significant enough to indicate the new visa regime had “become more acceptable to overseas education agents and to some of our traditional markets”.
“It’s pointing in the right direction and there have been enough quarters now trending up rather than down,” he said.
The deputy chief executive of Universities Australia, Greg Evans, said he saw potential to reach the high numbers experienced “before the sector was hit by the combined negative impact of changed visa conditions, concerns over safety and an elevated currency”.
Evans pointed to “encouraging” increases from Nepal (up 29% compared with the same quarter a year earlier), India (up 7%), Vietnam (up 42%) and China (up 5%).
“These welcome figures reflect both improved regulatory and visa conditions provided by government as well as the tireless efforts of our universities,” Evans said.
The Migration Council Australia chief executive, Carla Wilshire, said international education was one of the nation’s biggest export earners and represented a long term-investment in economic and political ties to the growing powers in the neighbourhood.
“The rebound in international student numbers is a welcome sign that efforts to streamline the visa process and improve the integrity of the system are working,” she said.
A government spokesman said the Coalition welcomed the rise in international student numbers and was working to grow the sector, which he said was “damaged by the mismanagement of the previous Labor government”.
The education minister, Christopher Pyne, has previously acknowledged that changes “were certainly needed to weed out a number of poor providers” but argued “it wasn’t well handled and it all fed a sense of rapid change and uncertainty for the education sector”.
Article Source: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/17/student-visa-applications-rise-strongly-after-tough-three-years