Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
14th Feb 2024

Australia: Visa rejection rates spike as some institutions withdraw admissions offers under new migration settings

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Students applying for Australian study visas are facing a sharp uptick in rejection rates under new “Genuine Student Test”
  • Some institutions and schools are scrambling to improve their risk ratings, as assessed by the Australian government
  • This has led some providers to rescind admissions offers to students who are expected to have a low likelihood of obtaining a study visa under the new rules

Australia’s new migration strategy – announced in late 2023 and in effect now – has led to significant confusion and disruption in the international education sector as it is disproportionately affecting prospective students from key sending markets. From sharply increased visa rejection rates to slow visa processing to – in some cases – rescinded offers from Australian institutions, international students are feeling the impact of Australia’s strategy to reduce migration levels.

More than a third of South Asian students refused

As many as 1 in 5 international students had their visa applications rejected in the last two quarters of 2023, rising to more than a third for Pakistani and Indian applications and over half for Nepalese students. “Australia is on track for a steep fall in net migration after federal officials turned away thousands of overseas students who applied to start courses this month, bringing student visa grants down by 20% in the biggest shift in two decades,” reported The Sydney Morning Herald. “The cut to the education programme is the biggest single factor in driving the total migrant intake down to 375,000 this financial year and putting it on course for 250,000 the following year.”

Under Australia’s new migration settings, prospective students must now prove a higher level of savings and a higher level of English proficiency, and must pass a “Genuine Student Test.” But there are complaints that there is a lack of transparency regarding exactly why one visa is refused and another accepted – and even a suggestion that many students are being refused because their own economy offers fewer job prospects than Australia’s does.

Dirk Mulder, the founder of the influential industry journal The Koala News, says that he has obtained wording from visa rejection letters and “while they do change from officer to officer and post to post the following is consistent:”

“[Wording in rejection letter] I have considered all the information provided with the visa application. Given the comparatively greater economic opportunities in Australia and the applicant’s own country, I am not satisfied that the applicant is a genuine applicant for entry and stay as a student.”

In other words, the student’s less prosperous economy – rather than the student’s merits and proffered evidence of having genuine intentions to study at the institution – is the apparent basis for the rejection.

India, Nepal, and Pakistan are Australia’s #2, #3, and #9 source markets, as shown in the following table:

Australia’s top 10 student source markets: 2019-2023. Source: Government of Australia

Institutions scramble to avoid being penalised

Many institutions are alarmed about the high rejection rates because rejections are pinned to institutions and influence their ability to recruit students successfully. Here’s why:

  • When introducing the reforms, the government warned that providers judged to be at “higher risk” [of accepting unsuitable students or providing sub-par education/supports] would experience slower visa processing times. This refers to a long-standing system in which institutions are categorised into one of three levels: 1 is least risk, 2 is medium risk, and 3 is high risk, where risk refers to the likelihood of accepting non-genuine students based on (recent) historical data.
  • Already, agents say that students applying to institutions deemed to be high risk are now experiencing longer visa processing times, while students applying to Level 1 institutions are seeing their applications processed even faster than before. The government says the longer visa processing times some institutions and agents are noticing are necessary for immigration officials to thoroughly check out the integrity of both the institution and the student applicant.
  • Suffice to say that an institution’s ability to meet its recruitment and admissions targets becomes much more unpredictable if it finds itself categorized as in Level 3, and high visa refusal rates are a major determinant of whether an institution finds itself in that category (other factors are fraudulent applications and students who overstay their visas).

In addition, the “risk list” is expected to be updated soon, heightening concern about extending enrolment offers to students who might be refused a visa. 

Some universities rescinding offers of enrolment

Concern about potential visa refusals has reached such a level that at least two universities – the University of Wollongong and La Trobe University – have withdrawn confirmations of enrolment to students they feared would not have their visas approved. One such withdrawal of acceptance from the University of Wollongong was obtained by The Koala News, and it followed the university having asked the student to withdraw or defer their offer:

The Koala News posted a passage of a letter sent by University of Wollongong to a student

The university then provided the student with a “next step”: “If you have applied for a student visa, please ensure you withdraw your application immediately.” The Koala also published a letter sent by La Trobe university, which encourages a student to withdraw their admission to receive a full refund of tuition, and it is aware that other universities are considering similar courses of action.

Other institutions responding by narrowing down source countries

Meanwhile, another international school has chosen to limit the countries from which it will accept applications in a bid to increase its visa approval rate, indicating in a letter obtained by ICEF Monitor that:

“[School] will only be accepting OFFSHORE applications from the following countries:

  • Europe (all countries)
  • Brazil
  • Argentina
  • South Korea
  • Japan
  • Canada
  • USA
  • United Kingdom
  • Taiwan
  • Mexico
  • Fiji
  • Papua New Guinea

We will continue to accept ALL nationalities from ONSHORE.”

And yet another private provider with multiple locations in Australia has cited low visa approval rates for students from Pakistan and Nigeria in its decision to pause all offshore applications from those countries. In a letter obtained by ICEF Monitor, the school writes to its agents:

“Unfortunately, due to significant and recent changes in the way the Australian Government are assessing student visa applications, [Institution] has been left with no alternative other than to pause all applications from offshore Pakistan and Nigeria. This decision will remain under constant review, pending information and clarity from the Australian Government Department of Home Affairs.”

The letter continues:

“Official Government statistics for student visa grants show a rapid decline in the visa approval rate from Q2 2023 to Q4 2023. From our own internal data, this percentage has fallen even further during 2024 in both the offshore Pakistan and Nigerian markets.

  • Pakistan offshore Higher Education visa approval rate has fallen from 71% in Q2 2023 to only 23.7% in Q4 2023
  • Nigeria offshore Higher Education visa approval rate has fallen from 67% in Q2 2023 to just 25.9% in Q4 2023

If you are representing a student that has already lodged a student visa application and the outcome is pending, I strongly recommend that you withdraw the application urgently to avoid receiving a negative visa outcome. [Institution] is extremely sorry for the upset and inconvenience this decision will cause you and your student(s).”

Affected students paying a high price, Australia’s brand image at stake

With risk settings due to be reset again in March or April this year, Association of Australian Education Representatives in India (AAERI) President Nishi Borra said that some universities were in a “panic”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Mr Borra said that even though students being asked to withdraw were offered a full tuition refund, “the students lost visa application fees of more than A$700 and up to A$800 in foreign exchange costs.” He said: “These students have opted for Australia over other destinations. Refusal…leads to a loss of goodwill for Australia as a study destination.”

One commentor, responding on Reddit to an article in The Age (“International students being turned away in record numbers”) wrote:

“Some [institutions] have responded [to the threat of being penalised] by simply pulling the plug on thousands of offers – i.e., a student has been accepted, but with absolutely random processes applied to the visa process, there is no way for the university to judge if they will be granted a visa. As such, places like Wollongong University and La Trobe University (and many others) have made the decision simply to cancel the enrolment of thousands of students – many of who would have been packing and ready to fly to start semester one. This is students who have left their jobs, sold houses, farewelled families and prepared for years living abroad.”

Assessing the situation – merely two months into the reforms – International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) Chief Executive Phil Honeywood added in Times Higher Education:

“Semester one is not looking very good for most education providers” and added that IEAA would be “strongly lobbying key government ministers to haul the situation back to some sort of equilibrium.”

Australia, Canada, and UK share intent to stem international student numbers

The Australian asked migration expert and former immigration department official Abul Rizvi to comment on the decline in student visa approvals in Australia and Mr Rizvi noted that Australia isn’t alone in how new migration policies are affecting students. He said that Canada and the UK’s new policies are also flawed:

“Australia’s approach has been to crank refusal rates. I personally think all three countries have got it wrong; they’re just doing it badly. Not letting dependants come is poor practice [UK], student visa capping is an arbitrary way and it’s also chaotic [Canada] … and Australia’s approach is subjective refusal rates. That’s not very good either, it’s just a waste of resources.”

For additional background, please see:

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