Pandemic still posing a challenge for overseas students

By Indira Laisram
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The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life on every front. The Australian education sector, which has been badly impacted, is still facing challenges especially when it comes to international student visa clearances. Some students hoping to live and study in Australia are still facing visa processing nightmares with no outcomes for months on end.

A few education and migration agents are of the view that staff shortage due to the pandemic and the increasing applications with opening of the borders may have added to the delays.

On its website, the Department of Home Affairs states, “Due to COVID-19, some visa processing times have been affected. Applications may take longer to finalise.”

This means students such as Maya Jacob, 19, who applied to study a Bachelor’s degree in IT at the Universal Higher Education, Melbourne, early this May, will have to wait longer. And the long and uncertain wait is making Jacob frustrated. So far, the only assurance she has received from her agent is, “Let’s just wait”. Meanwhile, her sister, who borrowed money to send her overseas, has already started paying interest on the borrowed money.

Similarly, Payal Jain, 24, had applied for a Master’s in Teaching at Australian Catholic University. Her application was lodged on 10 June and she has paid her fees for the first term. Currently based in Muscat, Jain who is teaching in a school there, did not enter a new teaching contract assuming she would be in Australia soon. She faces another dilemma, her visa to stay in the Middle East also expires the same time her teaching contract expires. To make matters worse, the Australian university has emailed her saying her admissions will be cancelled if she does not enrol by 5 August.

Like Jacob and Jain, there are many Indian students who are waiting for the approval for their student visa subclass 500. A look at the few Facebook groups suggests for many, the average waiting time is a few months.

Hari Hara Sudhan, who had applied for a PhD at Deakin University, lodged his application on 15 April in India and got it on 15 July. “No one can define a timeline,” says another student. There are some who are into their sixth month of waiting.

 

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A media report quoting the International Education Association of Australia says that the “discovery of significant delays to student visa processing times has come at the worst possible time for Australia’s beleaguered international education sector”.

Australia is struggling to rebuild its $37.5 billion (Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry figure) pre-pandemic international student sector.

A snapshot taken on 20 July from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment website, shows there are 60,222 International students from India studying in Australia, out of which 53,723 students are onshore and 6,499 are offshore.

The number of international students in Australia total 456,811 for the January-April 2022 period. There was a change of -13 per cent compared to the same period last year.

June 2022 saw the highest number of applications in the last ten years, while May 2022 was the third highest in the last ten years, according to the Department of Home Affairs.

Since the re-opening of the border in mid-December 2021 to 3 July 2022, more than 215,000 student visa holders have arrived in Australia.

So, are there delays in the issuance of student visas? According to Seema Shah, IAEC Education and Migration agency, “Actually, offshore visas are not all too bad, we have had visas approved in a few days recently. But there are cases which have been under process since March 2022. It is not clear at the moment, what visa applications are being prioritised and which ones are taking longer to process. We understand that the Department of Home Affairs is probably getting many more applications after Australian borders opened.”

Shah says that some of the onshore student visas, in fact, are taking about seven-eight months also, but the consolation is that students at least have a bridging visa with study rights and can continue to study while their visas are under process.

Another education and migration expert, says, on condition of anonymity, that there “is a bit of turbulence in getting admissions now. Generally, the processing time has always been slow, but the expectations of overseas students post COVID has not been met. It is hard to read the government’s thought process at the moment going by the current trend. We can’t see any influx of students, but again, we don’t have the data unfortunately to make an analysis. Hopefully, it picks up soon.”

In an email response to The Indian Sun, a Departmental of Home Affairs spokesperson, said it is currently prioritising student visa applications lodged offshore to enable commencement in Semester 2, 2022, as visa applicants who are already in Australia are able to commence or continue their studies whilst holding a bridging visa.

Addressing the backlog of visa applications is a government priority with additional resources allocated to process on-hand visa applications, the spokesperson said.

“All non-citizens applying for visas to enter Australia are considered on an individual basis and against legal requirements set out in Australia’s migration legislation. his often includes requirements that all applicants undertake and meet (where relevant) mandatory health, character and national security checks that are undertaken by other agencies; and this can take some time.

“The timing for the completion of these checks varies from one case to another, depending on individual circumstances. A visa cannot be granted until the Department is satisfied all requirements have been met,” the spokesperson said.

The delay in student visas is not only putting a brake on the recovery of the international education sector but also on businesses. “Australia really needs a significant labour force to come and share the burden of this skills shortage, due to which unfortunately many businesses are struggling and some of them are closing down,” says Shah.


The Indian Sun acknowledges the support of the Victorian Government.


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