Australia moves to streamline student visa system

By the middle of next year, international students applying to study in Australia will encounter a simpler student visa regulatory environment than currently exists in the country, and more Australian educators will enjoy the benefits of a streamlined visa system.

The Australian government has just released a report, Future directions for streamlined visa processing, and as a result of consultations stemming from it, a simplified student visa framework (SSVF) will come into effect in mid-2016, replacing the current SVP framework which is now set to expire on 30 June 2016.

The most important changes are:

  • A great reduction in the number of student visa subclasses: from the current eight to two when the SSVF takes effect;
  • The introduction of a single immigration risk framework under which all international students will be assessed, regardless of whether they are applying for university degrees, VET diplomas, English-language studies, or any other programmes.

To determine students’ financial and English language evidentiary requirements in their student visa application, the SSVF will look at the profile of the student’s country of citizenship and of their education provider.

The SSVF will replace both the current Streamlined Visa Processing (SVP) arrangements and Assessment Level (AL) Framework and will apply to all international students. According to the government, its changes are:

“… designed to make the student visa framework simpler to navigate for genuine students, deliver a more targeted approach to immigration integrity, and create a level playing field for all education providers.”

Michaelia Cash, Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, who announced the new SSVF framework with Minister for Education and Training Christopher Pyne, promised that the overall integrity of the student visa programme will be maintained under SSVF at the same time as improved regulatory arrangements will relieve education providers from administrative and cost burdens associated with ensuring international students comply with immigration rules.

“The SSVF will support the growth of the international education sector by enhancing both competitiveness and integrity while extending streamlined processing to all education sectors and all course types,” added the minister.

All Australian education institutions will participate in the forthcoming SSVF system – a distinct change from the SVP model that extended only to universities and a select group of VET and private providers.

Improving on SVP

The SVP system the SSVF will replace is one in which “certain prospective students of participating education providers” have been able to benefit from reduced evidentiary requirements relative to those who have not been eligible for SVP. SVP-approved institutions promise to fulfill a list of obligations toward ensuring their students adhere to immigration regulations in return for their SVP status.

Initially, the “participating education providers” were almost exclusively universities, which meant that universities enjoyed a much simpler and faster path to filling their international student enrolment targets than private VET or English language training (ELICOS) institutions. The extent to which the university sector has benefited from SVP relative to other sectors is significant. Department for Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) statistics show that since 2012, the higher education sector has experienced higher growth in student visa grants.

In 2013/14, SVP providers had a visa grant rate of 96.1% versus 85.4% for non-SVP providers.

After extensive lobbying, selected private colleges gained access to the system, but were nevertheless required to operate in a complicated visa risk assessment system to qualify – in spite of the fact that vocational and ELICOS providers are increasingly recognised as integral to the overall health of the sector in Australia.

Even so, the ELICOS sector has been largely excluded from SVP, since for a language course to benefit from SVP, it has to be recognised as “an enabling course,” part of the preparation for a higher education degree or advanced diploma. To gain this recognition, the language course has to be provided by a participating education provider (i.e., an SVP-listed institution), or their “nominated educational business partner.”

As much as SVP-approved schools have appreciated the simpler and faster visa processing their students receive, there has also been a significant financial burden entailed by their participation in the programme. The average expense per provider to fulfill SVP obligations has been estimated by DIBP at AUS$249,300 (US$194,200).

In addition, concerns have recently been raised about the extent to which international students have been able to “course-hop” via SVP (move from universities to VET schools, or simply to seek employment in Australia). As we noted earlier this year, The Australian has reported a surge in the number of “non-genuine” students in the country, and has obtained figures indicating that the number of cancelled student visas increased from 1,978 in 2012 to 4,930 in 2013 and 7,061 in 2014.

SVP is nevertheless credited with having contributed to Australia’s rebound of international enrolment after years of decline. Most recently, for the first quarter of 2015, Australia accepted more new international students than ever, 11% higher than the same period in 2014.

Simple = better for students

In addition to being excited about a more inclusive approach to streamlined visa processing, Australia’s international educators are pleased that the SSVF will be much easier for prospective students to understand, and to apply for, than is the current system.

Rod Camm, CEO of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training (ACPET), told the Australian Financial Review that Australia’s student visa system is currently so complex that colleges attending education fairs end up spending half their time explaining the visa system instead of talking about the quality of education, noting, “Australia is open for business and visa complexities make it so hard.”

Education providers will face reduced burdens

The new framework includes a relaxing of several constraints for education providers. For example, according to supporting government documents on SSVF:

  • Under SSVF, education providers will not be required to implement strategies to obtain or maintain a lower immigration risk rating, though they may choose to do so independently;
  • They will not be required to formally “opt-in” as the SSVF will apply to all education providers;
  • They will not be required to formally nominate educational business partners and will be able to package with other education providers with whom they have a commercial arrangement.

Educators react

Industry stakeholders welcomed the news of the upcoming change. Sue Blundell, Executive Director of English Australia, commented:

“Since the introduction of SVP in 2012, English Australia has continued to communicate our concerns regarding the negative impact on the English language sector and the fact that the SVP model was just not sustainable in the long term. We are delighted that the Department has listened to our concerns and that the government has accepted the recommendations to establish a new framework which will make it easier for genuine students to apply for a visa to study with high-quality, low-risk education providers.”

Phil Honeywood, CEO of the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA), noted:

“For too long the student visa system has been overly complex and overly expensive, so the sector welcomes any simplification of this process provided it weeds out the low quality providers from the quality providers.”

Universities Australia Deputy Chief Executive, Anne-Marie Lansdown agreed, adding, “We support a risk-managed approach to the student visa regime that rewards low-risk providers with access to simpler visa processes for their students.” But she also cautioned against penalising universities for “operating in new markets where immigration risks are less well known.”



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