‘I don’t hold a hose, mate’: for overseas students Morrison’s ‘hands-off’ approach was writ large

Jan 19, 2021

From June last year, the Morrison Government increased the number of offshore student visas even though it knew these people had little to no chance of entering Australia while the pandemic rages around the world. Why would it do this? 

Morrison’s initial message to the more than 2 million temporary entrants in Australia at the start of the pandemic was to “make your way home”.

The 2 million included about 600,000 students and about 100,000 temporary graduates. Many would have paid well over $100,000 in tuition fees and most would have been part-way through their course. The message they should just “go home” was as callous as it was bizarre and impractical given the shortage and cost of flights once the Government had closed international borders.

In response to Morrison’s message, the Department of Home Affairs temporarily stopped processing offshore student visa applications from early April to around early June. This is affirmed by a blow-out in processing times. But I have been unable to find any prior public announcement of this processing suspension or the Minister signing any relevant legal instrument for the suspension of visa processing as required by the Migration Act.

In June 2020, the Department appears to have resumed processing offshore student visa applications with 1,778 offshore student visas granted, up from less than 500 in each of the two months before. The offshore student visa grant rate in the June quarter jumped to more than 96 per cent while it had been consistently less than 90 per cent in previous quarters. The onshore student application approval rate jumped to almost 100 per cent.

The increase in grant rates for onshore student applicants has been explained. The Department says that “due to welfare, visa status and flight availability considerations, in early April 2020, the Department sought to delay finalisation of applications that may adversely affect a student”.

Leaving aside the legality of such a delay without the Minister having signed a publicly available legal instrument, this explanation for the jump in approval rates for offshore student visa applicants makes no sense.

In fact the Department actually increased grants to offshore student visa applicants in the September quarter to 21,069 and 12,353 in the two months of October and November 2020. This occurred while the Department knew the vast majority of these students could not possibly enter Australia to start their courses.

We also do not know how Home Affairs implemented Public Interest Criterion (PIC) 4007, the health requirement, for these offshore student visa applicants. Part of PIC 4007 requires the Department to ensure visa holders do not have a disease or condition that would be a public health risk to the Australian community – in fact we do not know how it has implemented this legal obligation for all visa holders since the pandemic started.

We do know that the federal Education Minister has used the large number of offshore student visas granted since the pandemic started to ramp up pressure on state governments to expand the number of places in hotel quarantine – a task the states have had to take on due to the Commonwealth failing to develop a national quarantine plan.

This is despite quarantine constitutionally being a Commonwealth responsibility and subject to the Commonwealth Quarantine Act 1908 (renamed the Bio-Security Act in 2015).

But why would the Commonwealth increase the number of offshore student visas granted from June 2020 when it knew these people had little to no chance of entering Australia while the pandemic rages around the world?

Why wouldn’t the Minister sign a legal instrument suspending offshore student visa processing until the pandemic had passed or a sensible quarantine solution could be found?

That would at least be consistent with Morrison’s message to temporary entrants such as students already in Australia to go home.

Was the Commonwealth embarrassed by its decision to deny JobKeeper to universities despite the ongoing revenue hit they were going to take from the closure of international borders? A hit that they would have to take on top of the hit from the Commonwealth’s mismanagement of the bi-lateral relationship with China?

Was the Commonwealth keen to deflect from the large job losses that universities were announcing by showing it was trying to help universities by processing offshore student visa applications – thus locking in some tuition fee revenue even if the students couldn’t get to Australia to start their course?

Was the Commonwealth embarrassed by its decision to deny any support for students already in Australia who were queuing up at food charities after losing their jobs?

Surely granting even more offshore student visas would only increase the pressure on charities if the students did not have the financial capacity to survive? But of course, the Commonwealth knew that most of these offshore students would not be entering Australia any time soon.

But most significantly, was the Commonwealth embarrassed by the fact that it has responsibility for student visas, borders, quarantine, the international education industry and funding of universities yet was taking responsibility for none of these?

Seems a case of “I don’t hold a hose” writ large.

Avoiding legal responsibility and accountability while taking credit for other people’s work is perhaps the Morrison Government’s most abiding characteristic.

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