Strategic Review of the Student Visa Program

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Strategic Review of the Student Visa Program

Posted 12/10/2011 by Harriet Spinks

A new graduate celebrating with a close friend or family member
Image source: The University of Sydney

On 22 September 2011 the Government released the Strategic Review of the Student Visa Program 2011(the Knight Review), along with its response to the Review’s 41 recommendations.

The Review recommends making some significant changes to visa processing, and post-study work rights, for students in the university sector. It also recommends some minor changes to the student visa program across other education sectors, and to the integrity measures applied by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) in monitoring and enforcing student visa compliance.

The Government has responded positively to the Review’s recommendations, and announced some significant reforms to the student visa system.

The Review of the student visa program was announced in December 2010, by the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, and the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Chris Evans, in response to concerns about the competitiveness of Australia’s international education sector and the integrity of the student visa system. The international education sector is a significant contributor to the Australian economy, and an important source of revenue for many higher education providers. Numbers of overseas students in Australia grew at an unprecedented rate under the Howard Government, largely due to measures designed specifically to attract students. While this growth was welcomed by many, it also led to concerns around the integrity of the program, and its utilisation as a pathway to permanent residency, as well as exploitation of students by unscrupulous education providers.

In response to these concerns, and also to address the impacts of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the Rudd and Gillard Governments introduced reforms to the student visa program and the skilled migration program, which were aimed at improving the integrity of the system and better meeting the needs of the Australian labour market. For a detailed account of policy developments in the overseas student sector see the Parliamentary Library Background Note Overseas students: immigration policy changes 1997–May 2010.

The higher education sector has been alarmed by the fall in international student numbers that was experienced in the wake of both the Rudd/Gillard reforms and the GFC—visa grants dropped by almost 16 per cent from 2008–09 to 2009–10. Through the Knight Review, the Government invited stakeholders in the sector to air concerns and contribute to the discussion around ways to enhance Australia’s overseas student sector, while at the same time strengthening the integrity of the student visa system.

The Review’s primary recommendations concern the university sector, and are aimed at making Australia’s universities more competitive in the global student market. First, the Review recommends streamlined visa processing for prospective university students, such that all applicants for a visa to undertake a university degree be considered at the lowest risk assessment level for visa applicants, regardless of their country of origin. This would reduce the onerous criteria which many prospective students have had to meet, such as financial means, to a level which should make Australia more competitive with other countries. Second, the Review recommends that international students who graduate from a university course be given two years post study work rights to enable them to gain work experience in their field. This is intended to make Australia a more attractive option for overseas students deciding upon a country in which to study.

Other significant recommendations include efforts to improve the integrity of the student visa system through changes to the way in which student visa applications are assessed. Specifically, the Review recommends that the assessment process prioritise ensuring that applicants genuinely intend to study, and will return home at the end of their studies, rather than use the student visa system as a back door means to working permanently in Australia.

The Government’s response to the Knight Review has been positive. It has given in-principle support to all 41 recommendations and announced that it will implement them all ‘with some modifications’. In particular, streamlined processing for students enrolling in Bachelor or higher degree courses will commence in the first half of 2012; a new post study work visa, valid for up to four years, will be introduced for Bachelor, Masters and PhD graduates; the financial requirements for some student applicants will be reduced; a new ‘genuine temporary entry’ criterion will be introduced for all student visa applications; and the student visa risk management framework will be comprehensively reviewed. All of the planned changes will be implemented by early 2013.

The Government’s response to the Knight review, and its planned reforms, has been welcomed by stakeholders, particularly the university sector, which believes these will assist in ensuring Australia’s higher education sector remains internationally competitive. However, some are concerned that the reforms do not go far enough. In particular, the vocational sector, along with state and territory governments, argues that the reforms should be extended to include students in vocational education, which has suffered some of the biggest declines in overseas student enrolments.

Some commentators have also raised concern about the potential pressures the reforms will place on Australia’s migration program, and visa processing for permanent skilled migration. For example, Swinburne Institute researcher Peter Mares argues that the new temporary post graduate visa for university graduates will see migrants remaining in Australia ‘temporarily’ for many years, making it likely that many will form ties here and wish to stay permanently. The pressures this will place on Australia’s permanent skilled migration program could lead to lengthy delays in processing and a blow-out in waiting times. Whether this proves to be the case, or indeed, whether the Government’s reforms to the student visa program prove to be the solution to the problem of falling international student numbers it is clearly hoped they will be, only time will tell.

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