Australia’s overseas student visa moving into a new era

Former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently told temporary students to ‘go home’. Since then most universities have refused JobKeeper and any genuine support for temporary entrants stranded in Australia. Many commentators assumed Australia would struggle to attract foreign students once the pandemic struck.

Those commentators fail to take into account the attractiveness of the unlimited work rights for students that former immigration minister Alex Hawke will later provide. While Hawke’s policy will somewhat tarnish the reputation of Australia’s international education industry, it will also lead to a huge increase in offshore student visa applications from students more interested in work than study.

Now that international borders have reopened, student arrivals and departures have picked up (see Chart 1).

Australia's Overseas Student Visa heading towards a new era

Arrivals were expected to exceed departures of 97,350 students in the period December 2021-March 2022, given the number of students who were prevented from admission during the pandemic. While there is a traditional net outflow of students in June 2022. Whereas in June 2022 this did not happen – instead there was a small excess of arrivals over departures.

There was a traditional excess of student arrivals on departure in July and August 2022 and a non-traditional excess of student arrivals in September 2022 – traditionally a month when there is an excess of departure upon arrival.

Offshore Application and Grant Rates

But the data can often be reversed from what is actually happening. Offshore visa application numbers give a better indication of the level of interest in studying/working in Australia while grant rates indicate the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) is managing the caseload.

Offshore student visa applications vary greatly from month to month. June 2022 is traditionally a strong month for offshore student visa applications while July, August and September 2022 are traditionally low application months (see Chart 2).

Australia's Overseas Student Visa heading towards a new era

In 2022, offshore student applications in June, July, August and September set new records by a significant margin.

In June 2022, there were 42,700 offshore student visa applications, with the highest number being 34,343 in June 2018. In July 2022, there were 30,801 offshore student applications, the next highest figure in 2019 being the July figure of 25,152.

In August 2022, there were 25,580 offshore student applications, with the next highest figure being 19,201 in 2018. In September 2022, there were 24,344 offshore student applications, with the next highest September figure being 18,142 in 2018.

For each month from June to September 2022, the number of foreign student visa applications exceeded the previous record for that month by at least 5,000.

But this is not turning into a similar record for offshore student visa grants as grant rates have dropped significantly, especially in September 2022 (see Chart 3).

Australia's Overseas Student Visa heading towards a new era

It is likely that the lower grant rates are partly due to increased levels of fraud by DHA in caseloads, as well as changes in source countries. DHA may at most use the “Genuine Temporary Entry” requirement as a basis for rejecting applications.

For a department under severe resource pressure as well as pressure to speed up processing, a large caseload with low grant rates due to fraud or use of subjective criteria such as “genuine temporary entry” represents a huge waste of resources. DHA desperately needs to find a different approach to managing the offshore student visa caseload.

From these data it is to be expected that a recently announced review of the immigration system may lead to a solution. In this regard, the Government of Albany has announced that Australia will return to Restricted Work Rights for foreign students from 1 July 2023.

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