The announcement last week by Prime Minister Scott Morrison that student visa holders are included in the categories of people allowed to enter Australia, and can return to Australian campuses is welcome news by both the international education sector and international students. As we plan for students to come back to Australian campuses, it is imperative that we identify where students may still face difficulties and ensure expectations are effectively and empathetically managed.
During the last 20 months, international students have been commencing their studies online without the need for a valid student visa. With the news that they can now finally travel to Australia to continue their study onshore, these students are now submitting their Australian student visa applications. They are faced with processing times of between 36 days to 17 months depending on which student visa category they’re applying for.
According to the Department of Home Affairs, visas granted to applicants outside of Australia decreased by 51.9 percent compared with the previous program year. Looking at the number of student visas granted specifically (2020-2021 program year), there has been a decrease of 31.6% compared with the same period in the previous year. There has been a steady decline of visas granted to applicants outside of Australia, particularly those from the Vocational Education and Training Sector. There is no real clarity as to why the visa grant rates have been falling.
Grant rate of student visa applications located outside of Australia
It is possible that during the pandemic, students have enrolled in an Australian institution, begun their studies online from home and then applied for a visa which is refused. This is an unprecedented situation, leading the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) to release a factsheet to assist providers in responding to enquiries from students who have commenced study offshore with a valid Confirmation of Enrolment (CoE) only to have their student visa refused. The advice from DESE is that the student either reapplies for their student visa or withdraws from the course - either way, the student is out-of-pocket financially.
In line with the announcements of Australia’s plans for the return of international students, there will undoubtedly be a surge of new applications for student visas resulting in longer processing times. It is highly unlikely that visa processing will be expedited for international students.
Australia can take valuable lessons from our competitors as we plan for recovery. Visa delays are hampering the US international education sector’s recovery with reports some months ago that international students are struggling to return to the US despite face-to-face classes resuming, due to visa processing delays.
For those with current valid visas the return to Australia is slightly less complicated. However, messages that student visa holders will be able to enter the country from 1 December potentially masks complex logistical realities for students wishing to re-enter Australia.
For example, while our national border is opening for student visa holders, students may still be required to undergo quarantine depending on which State/Territory they land in. Landing in and transiting through a quarantine-free state into a more restricted jurisdiction will present hurdles and further understanding of state and territory regulations.
Returning students will need to ensure that their vaccine certification correctly identifies the brand of their vaccine and contains all the necessary information required by DFAT, or face issues in getting their vaccine certification approved.
The announcement and the excitement surrounding it is underpinned by an assumption that flights are readily available and affordable for students to return. The reality is that students may struggle to secure a flight at a reasonable price due to limited airlines’ commercial viability.
The current border changes are certainly encouraging and have been a long time coming. But we run the risk of instilling too much hope in students too quickly. As a sector we need to be cautious and carefully manage students' expectations. Without preempting these challenges, we risk further damaging Australia’s reputation as a study destination at a time when we should be celebrating the restart of the sector.
Varsha Devi Balakrishnan, Education Analyst