Australian visa scholarships for Indian students drop

Thousands of South Asians have had their applications for Australian student visas denied, as authorities’ concerns over the bona fides of applicants have spread from vocational to higher education – and a criminal scandal that is spreading prepares threatens to make matters worse.

Visa grant rates for prospective university students in India and Pakistan fell in September, mimicking Nepal’s trajectory several months earlier, after pass rates for vocational students in the three countries fell to less than one in four.

Of the roughly 3,500 Indian visa applications for higher education processed by Australian authorities in September, according to Home Office data, well over 1,500 were rejected. Meanwhile, an extraordinarily low rate of 3.8% of professional study visa applications were approved, representing only 34 applications out of nearly 900.

Grant rates for vocational education visa applicants from India and Pakistan have hovered below 50% for most of this year. In September, higher education followed suit, with pass rates regularly exceeding 80%, dropping to 56% for Indians and 57% for Pakistanis.

Things are worse in Nepal, where visa applicants in both sectors had unusually high success rates until the tide turned in June. Of some 2,950 visa applications processed in September, only 33% in higher education and 15% in vocational education were given the green light, suggesting that more than 2,400 were rejected.

The data is consistent with anecdotal accounts of education agencies and private colleges, which reported a sudden increase in inexplicable visa denials. And it follows an increase in requests from all three countries after Australia’s borders reopened at the end of last year.

It also coincides with a crisis in visa processing after the former Federal Government cut A$875m (£492m) from the Immigration Department’s budget, causing waiting times to explode. The department has tried to remedy this by recruiting more than 180 new employees to date and redistributing the processing workload to less stressed teams.

Higher education policy expert Claire Field said this left inexperienced staff to contend with burgeoning applications from two distinct groups – committed students who had been waiting for months or years to come to Australia, starting sometimes their classes online from home, and a “different kind of student” drawn to Australia relaxed employment rules.

“You have two groups of students in your influx and not enough officials to process applications,” said Ms Field, a consultant and former regulator. “And then you have newly recruited officials who potentially don’t have the expertise to distinguish between these two groups.”

Meanwhile, officers and colleges have been implicated in criminal activity uncovered in a joint investigation by age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers, 60 minutes Stan television program and streaming service. They reported that 14 allegedly “corrupt” colleges helped 190 South Korean women enter Australia to work in the sex industry.

Home Secretary Clare O’Neil responded with announcing that former Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson, lawyer Joanna Howe and consultant John Azarias would conduct a “comprehensive review” of Australia’s migration system. She told the ABC that the system was “essentially used to facilitate wrongdoing”.

The higher education regulator has warned institutions to monitor the activities of their agents and the foreigners they enroll. “Education providers serving international students are responsible for ensuring that their education agents act ethically, honestly and in the best interests of international students,” the Quality and higher education standards in a “sector alert”.

Ms Field said the media revelations were “unfortunately not new. Part of the immigration system has been using student visas and cheap fees for decades to try to bring people into the country. It has been a marginal part of international education, unfortunately, for a long time.

She didn’t expect the revelations to prompt another crackdown on student visas. “But the government’s response will have to be measured, to detect these problems and fix them.”

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