Virginia, US
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| Hedvika Gibbs

How Can Education Providers in Australia be Successful with Simplified Student Visa Framework?

The impact of policy and political changes on the student visa regime

With the simplified Student Visa framework introduced in Australia from mid 2016, there has now been 18 months to assess whether the anticipated benefits – a targeted approach to immigration integrity and reduced red tape - have eventuated.  Statistics published by the (former) Department of Immigration and Border Protection indicate that both processing times and approval rates have remained largely stable, with marginal changes in individual markets.  So based on published processing times alone, it seems that the new policy has not delivered the anticipated benefits to reputable institutions.

More recently, the machine of government changes resulting in the creation of the Department of Home Affairs, which has responsibility for, amongst other things, student visas, have been viewed with some apprehension by the international education peak body, the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA). According to recent media reports, the IEAA Chief Executive, Phil Honeywood, feels that the jury’s still out on the extent to which the expected cultural change will make the new department conducive to student visa support, noting that application levels remain at the same levels as before the merge into the law enforcement portfolio. The question appears to be whether the people in the key decision making roles will have had opportunity to gain sufficient exposure to the nuances of supporting the international education sector, and in particular whether there is an ability to transition away from the level of scrutiny that may be applied to other types of visa products.

The onus is on education providers

As an immigration practitioner with background in student visa policy, my view is that the Department should be able to appropriately scale its scrutiny based on the individual provider’s risk rating. This is a mechanism that enables the Department to place higher evidentiary requirements on providers who, statistically, exhibit poor compliance outcomes, such as offshore visa refusals for fraud based and other integrity reasons, as well as student visa holders in Australia failing to comply with their visa conditions or overstaying their visas.

Risk ratings are reviewed bi-annually with providers by now reviewing their March assessments. An increased risk rating will mean that future student visa applicants have a higher threshold to meet before their visas can be granted. Inversely, providers with good outcomes (low risk rating) should benefit from student visa applications being approved more quickly and with less onerous requirements.  Consequently, there is a correlated need for providers to partner with reliable and appropriately trained student agents who can help them screen applicants and advise them on the requirements, because the onus is squarely on education providers to ensure they closely scrutinize the candidates for their programs, and to some extent pre-assess whether they are likely to meet all the visa criteria before they are put forward for consideration by the Department. This is not always an easy job for providers whose business, after all, is education, not immigration.

How can education providers remain compliant and grow their oversea enrollment?

The last financial year has seen modest increases in student numbers nationally, with Western Australia the outlier, at a twelve percent drop.  At the same time, I feel optimistic that Australian education providers may have an unprecedented opportunity to benefit from the expected down-turn in international student enrolments in the US, resulting from the revised immigration policies there.  They just need to be in a strong position to be able to seize this opportunity.  To enable this, it is important for education providers to involve their immigration counsel in broader compliance and audit strategy planning and program management.

To find out how you can grow your overseas student numbers while remaining compliant with immigration regulations, please contact Hedvika at +61 8 9436 0315 or hgibbs@fragomen.com.