Australia has seen a dramatic increase in the number of international student visas cancelled or under review over the last three years. The Australian is reporting 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.
While this represents a very small percentage of the more than 404,000 student visas issued in Australia in 2014, the increase in apparent cases of non-genuine applicants has drawn increasing attention over the past several months.
Observers have described a pattern whereby suspect students and agents have sought to exploit loopholes in the Australian system for streamlined visa processing, a model under which students accepted to eligible programmes and institutions “are generally subject to reduced evidentiary requirements regardless of the applicant’s country of origin.”
The issues leading to cancelled visas include:
- Recruitment of non-genuine students by agents, including the use of falsified English test results and financial documentation to secure admission to Australian institutions.
- “Course hopping,” where the student transfers to an unaccredited institution on arrival in Australia. The motivation of such students – Australian immigration officials have reportedly identified as many as 1,000 cases of course hopping recently – is not totally clear. Some may be attempting to save money by moving to more affordable institutions, some may be unaware of visa restrictions that prevent transfers, and others may simply lack genuine study plans. In any case, the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) reports it has cancelled 457 visas in course hopping cases of late and that others are still under investigation.
- “Ghost students,” where the student neglects to show up at their university or college at all. In such cases, the apparent motivation is often to work, as opposed to attending classes, in Australia.
Stepping up scrutiny
Australian officials and educators, meanwhile, are taking steps to increase the scrutiny for new applicants and to better identify non-genuine students.
“The federal government has quietly stepped up a campaign to assist tertiary colleges in identifying real students,” reports The Australian. The paper notes as well the case of The University of Wollongong where “procedures had been tightened and there were now restrictions on the types of financial documents that were acceptable.”
Less quietly, the DIBP has issued formal guidance on changing courses (or institutions) for international students, in an attempt to clarify the circumstances under which students may make such transfers but also to discourage course hopping.
“If you transfer to a course of study that is not eligible for streamlined visa processing or if you change the level of qualification you are studying towards and you have not been granted a new visa appropriate to your new course, then your visa might be considered for cancellation,” cautions the DIBP website.
Public service messaging on the DIBP website
In another series of high-profile moves, Navitas, a leading recruiter and pathway provider based in Australia, disclosed late last year that it had detected a “significant enrolment increase” from Nepalese and Indian agents beginning in late-2013 and subsequently introduced heightened scrutiny for new applicants.
Navitas recruits 80% of its Nepalese and Indian students via agents, and a November 2014 statement from Navitas CEO Rod Jones advises that the company’s additional checks “alerted us to cases of fraudulent documentation and higher incidences of student withdrawals. To ensure optimal student outcomes we have instituted a protocol of more intensive screening assessments in Nepal and India. These have negatively impacted enrolment growth, but we will not compromise on entry standards and risk adversely affecting academic outcomes.”
Navitas has also reportedly cut ties with as many as 40 agents in the wake of its internal review. And The Australian adds, “Tougher screening has seen the number of student visas granted from India fall from 91% of all applications in the third quarter of 2013 to 82% for the corresponding last year, while visas granted to Nepalese students fell five percentage points to 91%.”
This is a potentially noteworthy change, particularly in the case of India as this key market has proven to be an important driver of international enrolment growth in Australia over 2013 and 2014.
The Council of International Students Australia (CISA) has condemned the practice of recruiting non-genuine students and pledged its commitment to addressing the issue in cooperation with the Australian government and industry groups.
CISA President Thomson Ch’ng told The Australian recently, “Ghost students are common in some colleges, the issue being where they are if they are not attending classes, but are here on student visas. This is definitely a loophole. I’m not saying agents are operating unscrupulously, but there are a few rotten apples out there that are leading the way in sending non-genuine students to Australia.”
However, Mr Ch’ng has also called for greater transparency in publicly sharing government and institutional data on visa fraud. “Visa cancellation takes place for a number of reasons,” he said in an interview with Australian broadcaster SBS earlier this month. However, he also points out that it is not known what proportion was due to actual fraud or breaches of immigration policy, or what proportion may have been due to other reasons, such as cancellation of study plans or withdrawal from study.
International education activity contributed an estimated AUS$15 billion to Australia’s economy in 2013 – a 3.8% increase over 2012 but still shy of the previous high of AUS$16.1 billion in 2010.