Restricting onshore student visa hopping – harder than it looks

Feb 3, 2024
Visa application form and flag of Australia.

Onshore student visa policy gets relatively little attention as it deals with people who are already in Australia, but it is critical to how the overseas student program operates.

The new migration strategy released late last year says the Government will:

“restrict onshore visa hopping that undermines system integrity and drives ‘permanent temporariness’…the Government will apply additional scrutiny to international students applying for another student visa.”

The strategy goes onto highlight how the biggest growth in student visa hopping is in the VET sector:

“where there is a lower likelihood of a credible course progression. However, in 2022–23 almost 69,000 students granted a subsequent student visa in Australia have stayed in, or shifted into, studying in VET, compared to 42,000 students pre-pandemic in 2018–19. Using the new Genuine Student test, the Government will require any eligible students applying inside Australia to provide evidence in their application to demonstrate that any subsequent course is furthering their career or academic aspirations, such as undertaking a practical VET course to complement their degree, or undertaking research to gain a master’s qualification in their field of expertise. Prospective international students who cannot demonstrate this sensible course progression from their initial course of study will not meet the Genuine Student test.”

This is a fine ambition but much easier said than done, particularly as onshore applicants have appeal rights and the new ‘genuine student test’ will remain a highly subjective one. The phenomenon of student visa hopping (sometimes also called poaching) is not a new one. I recall dealing with the issue in the early 2000s when we restricted students from changing provider during the first 12 months after arrival. This was later reduced to 6 months ostensibly to assist students who found they had enrolled with a provider that did not suit them. In my view, that was a bad change and should be reversed.

The recent history of onshore student visa processing is a chequered one. The Albanese Government inherited a massive backlog of onshore student visa applications, with onshore student visa applicants left to linger on bridging visas for months on end. The total number of people on bridging visas peaked at an extraordinary 373,109 in March 2022. A substantial number of those were students. A large number of people on bridging visas is a sure sign of a visa system in trouble.

That was a legacy of the Dutton/Pezzullo era of visa processing neglect. For both of them, visa processing was a low priority activity that could be left to fester. Little did they realise that massive onshore backlogs are a honeypot for not just applicants seeking any way to extend stay but more importantly for people who take advantage of the vulnerable.

Table 1 highlights that between November 2022 and May 2023, the Albanese Government undertook a massive backlog clearance exercise for onshore student visa applicants – something that simply had to be done. An extraordinary 66,817 onshore student visas were granted in just December 2022 alone. That helped bring down the number of bridging visa holders to 176,856 in June 2023.

Inevitably, there would never have been enough resources to undertake such a massive backlog clearance exercise with the same level of scrutiny that would normally be applied. As a result, the grant rate in November and December 2022 increased to over 99 percent. This also slowed student departures and would have contributed somewhat to the record levels of net migration in 2022-23.

Table 1: Onshore student visas

Source: visas * Note the grant rate relates to visas that were granted divided by the number actually finalised. It does not include those left in the backlog

From June 2023, onshore student visa processing has largely gone back to what might be described as normal with a grant rate of between 90 to 95 percent. But it also appears the backlog is again beginning to slowly increase. In December 2023, there were only 6,000 grants and 16,089 applications with a grant rate of 92.5 percent. By end December 2023, the bridging visa backlog had again climbed to 211,570. That trend cannot be allowed to continue.

If the Albanese Government is to successfully implement a strategy of applying greater scrutiny to onshore student visa applications while also preventing the backlog from growing, it will need to allocate substantial resources to the task. Refusing onshore student visa applications based on subjective criteria such as academic and career aspirations requires careful gathering of evidence and robust write-up of decisions that can withstand appeal.

In 2020-21, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) dealt with 3,381 appeals of onshore student visa refusals (22 percent of all migration (non-asylum)-related decisions) with a set aside rate of 41 percent. In 2022-23, this fell to 2,359 (17 percent of the AAT migration caseload) and a set aside rate of 43 percent. This decline would have been due to the very high approval rate for onshore student visas in the period November 2022 to May 2023.

In the first six months of 2023-24, there were 1,095 AAT decisions on onshore student refusals (18 percent of the migration caseload). But the volume of appeals to onshore student visa refusals in these first six months was 2,883 or 42 percent of the AAT’s migration caseload. In other words, as the Government applies greater scrutiny to onshore student applicants, more are seeking to appeal these decisions to the AAT.

If the Government is going to increase scrutiny of onshore student visas as part of the migration strategy, leading to a lower grant rate of even just 85 percent, it will have to not only properly fund primary level processing but also at the AAT.

Moreover, the Government will need to ensure those who are finally refused actually depart Australia. The cost of this will also be substantial as the immigration compliance function is only just recovering from being run down under the Coalition Government. It is also possible a rising number of refused students may apply for a asylum given the huge backlog and the opportunity that provides to extend stay with work rights.

All of this highlights the importance of getting the original offshore student visa decisions right. That is where a fundamental re-think of the objectives of the student visa program is needed.

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