Australia: New Migration Strategy ushers in tougher requirements for international students
- Australia’s long-awaited Migration Strategy promises increased regulation of international education and more selective processes for approving or rejecting foreign student applicants
- Some post-study work rights have been reduced
- The savings threshold for applicants has been raised
- A new “Genuine Student Test” will apply to all international students
- English-language requirements for visa applicants have been raised
- “High risk” education providers can expect slower visa processing – or more extreme consequences
The Australian government issued its long-awaited Migration Strategy on 11 December 2023 and announced “the biggest reforms to migration in a generation.” The review informing the new strategy was led by Dr Martin Parkinson, who concluded that the migration system was “so badly broken” it would take 10 years to restore. As expected, the reforms will have a profound impact on the AUS$30 billion-per-year international education sector – and will certainly affect the flow of foreign students into the country.
The government has not, as yet, mandated a cap on international student numbers, which will come as a relief to education providers in the country. That said, new policies will exert downward pressure on those numbers by making it more difficult for non-genuine students to obtain study and work visas and by raising the financial requirement for visa applicants by 17% to AUS$24,505.
Other imminent policy changes – including the reduction of some post-study work rights – will lead to fewer international students remaining the country for long periods of time.
Underlying the reforms is a mission to rebuild Australia’s migration system so that it becomes “the nation building engine it once was.” Over the past few years, says the strategy report, the migration system has failed to “identify and attract those people who are best placed to help build the skills base of Australia’s workforce, boost exports and raise living standards.”
The strategy is also quite clearly designed to curb current migration levels. As The Sydney Morning Herald observes, “Australia’s net migration will be halved within two years in a dramatic move to slash the annual intake from a record high of 510,000 by imposing tougher tests on overseas students and turning away workers with low skills.”
“This Strategy is about building back integrity into the system, with Treasury forecasts showing that migration is expected to decline substantially over the next financial year,” added Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil.
Improving integrity of international education a priority
Of the eight “key actions” in the new Migration Strategy, the third is devoted to strengthening the integrity and quality of international education – a commitment targeted for completion by the end of 2024 and consisting of:
“A package of integrity measures to lift the standards for international students and education providers, while ensuring graduates help meet skills shortages and do not become ‘permanently temporary.’”
The measures include:
- “Increasing minimum English language requirements for student and graduate visas;
- Applying additional scrutiny to high-risk student applications;
- Cracking down on unscrupulous education providers;
- Bolstering the student visa integrity unit in the Department of Home Affairs to reduce misuse of Australia’s student visa system;
- Strengthening requirements for international education providers;
- Restricting onshore visa hopping that undermines system integrity;
- Strengthening and simplifying Temporary Graduate visas;
- Ending settings that drive long-term temporary stays (known as ‘permanent temporariness’) including through: (i) shortening graduate visas; and (ii) ending settings that allow graduates to prolong their stay in Australia when they have fewer prospects of becoming permanent residents.”
Supporting many of these measures is the introduction of a Department of Home Affairs’ “student visa integrity unit,” which will receive initial funding of AUS$19 million. “The Government’s Migration Strategy sends a clear message that we will act to prevent the exploitation of students and protect Australia’s reputation as a high-quality international education provider,” said Minister for Education Jason Clare.
Pandemic undermined integrity of system, government finds
The inability of international students to travel to Australia for in-person study when the country’s border was closed for two years during the pandemic exacted a serious financial toll on schools, universities, and VET providers. The dip in international student spending rippled through other related sectors as well. When the border reopened, the government rushed to enact policies designed to bring international students back as quickly as possible.
The policies were effective and international student numbers are now higher than what they were in 2019. But, says the migration report, the post-COVID growth “was partly driven by non-genuine students and unscrupulous education providers subverting aspects of the current regulatory and compliance framework, and pandemic-era visa concessions, such as unrestricted working hours for international students.”
Multi-pronged strategy for discouraging non-genuine students
Stakeholders consulted during the review phase reported a persistent problem of some education providers – notably those in the VET sector – helping non-genuine students to gain access to Australia’s labour market using a student visa. As a result, the new Migration Strategy notes that the government may “use its powers … to issue suspension certificates to high-risk education providers … and will announce changes in the coming months.”
Along with VET providers, the government indicates it will explore increased regulation of agents through an expansion of the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority. More scrutiny of VET providers and agents is expected to “place downward pressure on migration levels as fewer non-genuine students arrive and fewer non-genuine providers recruit students.”
A further measure to discourage non-genuine students will be the new “Genuine Student Test” for all international students that will “incentivise applications from genuine students … [but make it clear] that the vast majority of students in Australia will return home.”
And as soon as this month, providers judged to be at “higher risk” [of accepting unsuitable students or providing sub-par education/supports] will experience slower visa processing times.
Commitment to reducing “permanent temporariness”
The Parkinson review found that too many students are moving from course to course, and visa to visa, to prolong their stay in Australia without applying for permanent residency. The number of students who obtain more than one student visa while in Australia has “grown by over 30% to more than 150,000 in 2022/23.” Once again, the VET system comes under fire:
“The biggest growth in visa hopping has been in the VET sector, where there is a lower likelihood of credible course progression.”
Built into the new Genuine Student Test will be the requirement for students to prove that any additional course they take while in Australia is taken to complement their degree and upgrade their credentials.
The review also found that “former students are among the largest cohort of ‘permanently temporary’ migrants and that over 50% of Temporary Graduate visa holders are working in low-skilled jobs and not gaining the experience they need to be eligible for permanent residency. It determined that extra time on a post-study work visa does not improve career outcomes and so:
- The government is adjusting the length and eligibility of post-study work rights;
- There will be no extensions of post-study work rights except in regional areas (previously, a two-year extension had been available to those working in an area of skills need).
Subclass 485 Temporary Graduate visa limits have been changed:
- Bachelor’s degrees still allow for two years of work;
- Master’s by coursework degrees have been reduced from three years to two years;
- Master’s by research degrees remain at three years;
- PhDs have been reduced from four years to three years.
As a balance to those changes, some students will find it easier, going forward, to obtain permanent residency in Australia:
“Proposed reforms to the points test will also give graduates working in skilled jobs faster pathways to permanent residency.”
And the government will also work with education providers and employers to graduate students with in-demand skills through more integrated learning (e.g., work placements, co-op programmes).
“We welcome further measures to preserve the integrity and strength of the education system while protecting students from unscrupulous operators seeking to exploit them for personal gain,” said Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson. “We also applaud the government’s steps to simplify graduate visas to improve the applicant experience and give both graduates and employers more confidence in their ongoing work rights.”
Higher English-language threshold
In early 2024, the government will increase the English-language scores that students will need to meet to obtain Australian visas:
- For the Temporary Graduate Visa, the required IELTS score will move from 6.0 to 6.5;
- For the Student Visa, the required score will increase from 5.5 to 6.0;
- For students beginning courses with an English-language training provider (ELICOS), the score changes from a 4.5 to a 5.0;
- For students going into university foundation or pathway programmes, the needed score will be 5.5.
Integrity of international education sector attached to “social license”
The review report makes an important point that non-genuine students and unscrupulous providers “erode public confidence in both international education and the migration system. It states:
“Retaining the ‘social license’ for Australia’s international education system is critical if the sector is to prosper in the decades ahead.”
This idea of social license is also at play in Canada and the UK, as is the related move towards increased government regulation of international education providers – and more stringent policies around student and work visas. In the past month:
- The Canadian government raised the savings threshold for international student visa applicants to CAN$20,635 (from $10,000), warned provinces and institutions that if they do not do more to protect students’ welfare that “we will do it for them,” and announced that extensions of post-study work rights will no longer be possible after 31 December 2023. In 2024, it will introduce a Trusted Institution framework that will reward colleges and universities demonstrating a high level of graduate outcomes and support for international students.
- The UK government announced that its popular Graduate Route is now in review, with a prospect of international students’ work rights being once again reduced. This follows two other announcements earlier in the year: (1) the end of international students being permitted to bring dependents with them unless they are in postgraduate research progammes, and (2) a bump in the savings threshold for a Skilled Worker visa (to £38,700) and in the salary level for a family visa (to £38,700).
Australia, Canada, and the UK have recorded exceptional growth in international student numbers and migration levels over the past few years. It is clear now that their governments are switching from active encouragement of largely unregulated growth to active scrutiny of which international students will be allowed across their borders to study, work, and immigrate.
Common to reforms announced across the three countries is a determination to prioritise students who study for, and obtain, certain credentials and in-demand skills. Other students will find it more difficult, starting now, to study and work in Australia, Canada, and the UK.
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