A delegation of education institutions representing all levels of international education met with the assistant minister this month to discuss huge delays to visa processing caused by new screening requirements under the new system and a sudden influx of applications under the old one.
“This has created some major headaches in Australia and abroad – they didn’t have enough local staff”
“Nobody anticipated the massive surge in applications, thousands of student visa applications,” commented Phil Honeywood, executive director of the International Education Association of Australia, who led the delegation.
“This has created some major headaches in Australia and abroad – they didn’t have enough local staff to process on a timely basis.”
The University of Technology, Sydney saw a “pretty dramatic” impact on visa processing during the month of August, according to director of studies David Larbalestier.
“[Applications] weren’t being rejected; they weren’t being processed,” said Larbalestier, who is also president of Universities English Centres of Australia.
“At one point, two and a half to three weeks out from course start, we only had 10 new students and we were expecting up to 180. That threw us into a bit of a panic. It made it extremely difficult to plan,” he explained.
“So we’re all astounded. This has never happened before.”
Helen Zimmerman, chief corporate affairs officer at Navitas, said the education group “experienced delays across virtually all of our Elicos, foundation and university pathway colleges”.
Nevertheless, she added that the response from government has been “swift and effective”.
“When concerns were raised by the industry, the action by the assistant minister and the whole-of-government response to addressing the issue was commendable,” she said. “We feel the new system will be a positive for our industry going forward.”
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has hired more processing staff and, critically, reprioritised visa processing to process visas according to institutions’ intake dates, rather than application dates.
“It was a good example of thinking outside the square by government,” reported Honeywood, who also lauded Hawke’s responsiveness to the situation.
“It was a good example of thinking outside the square by government”
Though the delays were partly down to the influx of applications under the old system, some visa applications are now taking longer to process because the level of risk attached to different countries has changed under the SSVF.
This entails a higher level of administrative and evidentiary requirements for some countries.
A frequently-discussed example of this at the recent English Australia conference was Japan – where students are finding the new process “terribly onerous, off-putting even”, according to Larbalestier at UTS.
“The surprise for Australia is what’s traditionally been low-risk students where there hasn’t been such an intensive, comprehensive background check required, all countries are now being treated on a similar footing when it comes to national security checks,” commented Honeywood.
The extension of the Genuine Temporary Entrant assessment to more countries has been particularly problematic for English language institutions, noted Brett Blacker, CEO of English Australia, who described it as “somewhat of a subjective assessment on the rationale for a student to want and come and study”.
“In some instances, we would like to see the aspirations of a student wanting to come and study English language to be respected as a single purpose for coming to Australia,” he commented.
“Initially in terms of implementation, there’s some more training required in terms of how to complete the information.”
English Australia and other stakeholders will work closely with DIBP to address any bumps in the road over the next few months, he said.
However, national security concerns on the part of DIBP mean institutions may have to get used to longer processing times than in the past, suggested Honeywood, meaning that they may have to educate students and agents about the need to submit applications earlier.
“This is part and parcel of living in the modern world, but a lot of education providers hadn’t realised the extent to which immigration departments in study destination countries are now having to drill down and have a closer look at some students,” he said.