Overseas students visa criteria – a new approach needed

Dec 3, 2022
International graduates taking a photograph. Image: iStock

One of the most important issues the Migration System Review must address is the overseas student visa system and associated pathways to permanent residence.

International education is one of Australia’s largest export industries and in most years contributes around 40 percent to net overseas migration and around 25 percent of the annual migration program.

Since the start of this year to end October 2022, student arrivals have exceeded student departures by 221,010. The number of student visa holders in Australia has increased from a low of 315,949 at end December 2021 to 424,793 at end October 2022.

A substantial portion of student visa holders move initially into the bridging visa backlog which at end October 2022 stood at 357,743 or access a temporary graduate visa (112,056 at end October 2022) before either departing or finding a pathway to permanent residence.

Driven by former Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s decision to grant students unlimited work rights, offshore student visa applications surged to new records in each of June, July, August, September and October of 2022 by very significant margins. In October 2022, offshore student visa applications were 23,327, over 3,000 higher than the previous October record of 19,890 in October 2018.

Department of Home Affairs (DHA) has expressed concerns it is seeing a substantial level of fraud in the caseload and has also been refusing large numbers of student applicants using the ‘genuine temporary entrant’ criteria. As a result, visa grant rates have fallen dramatically. Overall offshore student grant rates have fallen from between 85 percent to 95 percent in the period November 2021 to August 2022 to 65 percent in September and 62 percent in October 2022.

Source: data.gov.au/student visas

For major source nations of India and Nepal, the decline in grant rates were most severe falling to 36.3 percent for India and 35.2 percent for Nepal in October 2022 (see Chart 1).

But by far the biggest decline in grant rates were for private VET courses although it is likely grant rates for students at lower tier universities are also likely to have fallen.

Source: data.gov.au/student visas

Grant rates for offshore student visa applicants in the VET sector for India was an astonishing 0.9 percent; Nepal 16.6 percent and China 24.1 percent.

This is DHA effectively saying that offshore student visa applicants from these nations in the VET sector should mostly not bother applying. Given the reputation of many private VET colleges, and recent reporting by the Nine Network in its ‘trafficked’ series of the student visa being used essentially as a work visa, that may not be surprising. But using the highly subjective tool of ‘genuine temporary entrant’ for this purpose is inefficient and simply unsustainable.

A much more rational approach is needed, especially as in future Australia will need overseas students to undertake high quality trade courses to add to our tradie workforce. Very few overseas students undertake quality trades courses at TAFEs and few TAFEs offer traditional trade courses to overseas students. Our student visa and skills recognition processes simply aren’t suited to the purpose.

As baby boomer tradies in Australia (and most other developed nations) retire over the next decade, Australia will need to find a way to meet its need for tradies. Even the large increase in funding for free TAFE courses as well as apprenticeships that have recently been announced are likely to be insufficient.

Relatively few tradies will come to Australia through the recently announced larger migration program. Skilled migrants with traditional trade skills rarely make it into the top 15 occupations in the migration program.

And without a very substantial increase in Australia’s tradie workforce, it will be impossible for state governments to deliver on the National Housing Strategy and the desperate need to repair houses destroyed by the bushfires and the more recent floods.

Will this be on the agenda of the Migration System Review?

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