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Australia announces crackdown on student visas


Migration strategy promises closer scrutiny of applications and reduction of post-study work rights

Dramatic cutbacks to Australian immigration levels and a tightening of student visa rules are set to impact the higher education sector in 2024.

A government migration strategy released on 11 December indicates that there will be closer scrutiny of applications and higher English language standards imposed on students.

The strategy, published following an independent review, will also make it easier for highly skilled workers to enter the country, with a Skills in Demand visa to be created and faster approvals promised.

The student visa changes are aimed mostly at non-university providers, some of which are known as ‘ghost colleges’ for the lack of actual education they provide while their students work in low-paid jobs.

However, new hurdles will be created for international students coming to Australian universities at a time when the lucrative international student market is just recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic. The strategy also targets students who enrol at university then change to cheaper, less demanding courses or ghost colleges.

The duration of post-study work rights will be reduced, with doctoral students being cut back to three years from four, but there will be a “21-day service” guarantee of the work visa being processed. Extensions will only be possible for people who studied in regional areas. A dedicated section of the Department of Home Affairs will be created to deal with student visa issues.

The sector is also anxiously awaiting the Australian Universities Accord, which may include a levy on international students to be distributed across higher education providers. Some institutions, particularly the Group of Eight research-intensive universities, have much higher foreign student enrolments than others. 

Restoring balance

Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said the vice-chancellors’ group welcomed most of the changes, including the introduction of a “genuine student test”.

“The creation of new visa streams to attract researchers to our universities and keep more international graduates in Australia is also a good thing,” Jackson said in a statement.

However, she warned that “any changes, now or in the future, that restrict the movement of genuine students to our shores need to be weighed carefully against the significant benefits they bring, during and after their studies”.

She later told ABC radio that the university sector was against further restrictions, such as caps on student numbers. “I would be surprised if those [genuine student] numbers dipped enormously” as a result of the new policy, she said.

Higher education analyst Andrew Norton issued an analysis saying that the changes “will make life more difficult for universities relying on migration-motivated international students”, but he said they were timely to “restore the balance” between “education sector self-interest and the interests of both international students themselves and the broader Australian community”.

Education minister Jason Clare said the changes would “prevent the exploitation of students and protect Australia’s reputation as a high-quality international education provider”.