Slow visa approval rates strain Australian universities

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Historically low visa approval rates for international students could dent Australia’s appeal at a time when it should be gaining an advantage over other competitor destinations, stakeholders have indicated.

During a recruitment webinar hosted by the International Education Association of Australia on 29 February, attendees heard that visa approval rates – at their lowest levels since 2011 – could cost the sector up to $310 million in revenue.

September 2023 was the nadir for the sector with an approval rate of just 66.4% for the month, according to data shared by Jon Chew, global head of Insights and Analytics at Navitas.

“Five out of the 10 lowest grant rates we’ve seen across all of international education have taken place in the last 12 months. In fact, seven out of the 10 lowest have taken place in the last 18 months,” said Chew.

Australian government’s new migration strategy, released in December, is largely blamed by the wider international sector for the slowdown.

“There are fair reasons for why the grant rate is this low, such as the Nixon review and the Parkinson review, and a lot of media coverage of ghost colleges. But there’s a real sense that this is quite extraordinary. It introduces a new level of uncertainty for students,” he said.

“I know many other universities are in similar situations”

IEAA CEO Phil Honeywood cited the case of 81 Chinese students who have completed Australian year 12 requirements in China and are supposed to be headed to top Australian universities for the first semester of 2024. Their visas are yet to be processed.

“The government’s narrative about needing to do more offshore teaching [is] going to be brought unstuck by their own visa processing delays and not being able to get those year 12 graduates from international high schools in China here in time to start their first undergraduate years,” said Honeywood.

Uni ratings impacting approvals

Some universities are experiencing higher approval rates than others as a result of a more favourable risk rating applied by the Australian government. The risk rating reflects the government’s view on how likely a university is to accept non-genuine students.

Universities rated level 1, the lowest risk category, have around 8% of international students visas still awaiting approval, according to Honeywood. For level 2 and 3 universities, he said the rate is 15% and above.

At Charles Sturt University, which is based in regional New South Wales, 40% of international students are still waiting on visa decisions in week one of the semester, the university’s pro vice-chancellor (International), Mike Ferguson, told the audience.

“Speaking to my colleagues at other universities, I know many others are in similar situations. You’re looking at refusal rates for offshore students in most markets in the region of 50%,” said Ferguson.

“There’s an unevenness [in approval ratings for] level 1, 2 and 3. It’s putting education providers in a difficult position.”

The ratings system is compelling some universities to seek out students from lower risk countries or rethink their expansion strategies.According to Ferguson, universities with large numbers of Chinese, European and Singapore students have been relatively insulated from lower approval rates.

“We’re looking at how do we diversify and get into some of these lower risk markets. Of course, it’s not that easy. Students in particular markets are attracted to different types of providers and different types of locations,” he said.

“Those [universities] who have been looking to diversify into Africa or South Asia will be thinking twice about that, because if you do that, that could move you from level 1 to level 2.”

Is Australia now less attractive?

Australia is not alone in ushering in changes to the higher education sector that have dented the country’s appeal to international students. Honeywood pointed out that Canada has now capped international student levels, UK has placed restrictions on partners of students, and New Zealand has prioritised working holiday visas over student visas.

“Clearly there is some form of informal cap in place”

The good news for Australia, said Honeywood, is that a proposed levy on international students did not eventuate, however the idea of a more general levy on universities is still being floated.

Data released by IDP last week suggested that the US is the “largest beneficiary” of changes in student sentiment following policy amendments in a number of study destinations.

Ferguson adopted a more dire tone than Honeywood, suggesting Canada’s introduction of a cap is not as bad as the changes happening in Australia. Referring to the collapse in international student numbers in Australia in 2009-12, he said it could take around 18 months for the current situation to ‘stabilise’.

“There’s also a very big conversation we’re going to have down the track in terms of caps and managing volume, because clearly there is some form of informal cap in place. What’s missing is transparency to the sector about what’s exactly happening,” said Ferguson.

The post Slow visa approval rates strain Australian universities appeared first on The PIE News.

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