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ELICOS facing highest visa rejection rate ever

Australia’s ELICOS sector is suffering what stakeholders are calling the worst visa rejection rates in almost two decades and rejections increasingly “appear to be at odds with reasonable standards”.

Students have had visa refused due to the assertion that students might earn more in Australia than in their home countries, stakeholders say. Photo: pexels

A group of 16 universities have said they expect to lose $310 million in revenue

Visa approval ratings have been impacting the entire international education market in Australia, but especially country’s English language providers.

Only Vocational Education and Training providers have seen higher refusal rates than the ELT sector.

It comes after Australia announced additional student visa application scrutiny in its migration strategy launched in December.

“The difficulties experienced by students and our member colleges in recent months regarding visa rejections are certainly top of mind for English Australia,” English Australia CEO, Ian Aird, said.

“We are receiving daily phone calls and emails from member colleges, agencies, and other stakeholders who are increasingly frustrated and anxious.”

In the year to October last year, English Australia’s data suggested that the ELICOS sector had 146,666 enrolments, overtaking its pre-Covid figures.

In 2019, English Australia members recorded some 140,645 enrolments.

“The data shows conclusively that the rejections are the highest since records began in 2005 in terms of both proportion and the number of applicants being rejected,” Aird continued.

“A line that has become a source of dread for the industry, is the assertion that students might earn more in Australia than in their home countries”

In October 2023, visa grants for the Independent ELICOS sector were down by 32.06% compared with the same month in 2022. The drop is an equivalent of 1,617 fewer visas.

Grant rates for students from Colombia – which accounted for the highest number of commencements in 2023 (26,022 students) – were down by 34.79% over the same comparison period.

Key markets of Thailand and Brazil both saw grant rates fall, by 89.99% and 46.82%, respectively. And the situation seems to be worsening.

“The anecdotal evidence we’ve heard from our members is particularly concerning. We are receiving increasing reports of rejections that appear to be at odds with reasonable standards,” Aird added.

“We are in ongoing dialogue with the government to understand the situation and why the rejection rates have spiked as well as to explore individual cases when our member colleges provide us with specific cases of problematic rejections.”

BROWNS English Language School – which opened a new location in Melbourne last year – is one school affected.

“It’s certainly a challenging time for all of us in the sector,” CEO Justin Blake said.

The government crackdown on “dodgy providers” and “shonks” has been ambiguous in its estimation of affected entities – ranging from “a dozen to less than a hundred”, he continued.

“[It] has stirred considerable concern,” he detailed, as have reports of legitimate student visa applicants facing unexpected denials.

“Of particular concern is the sudden surge in visa refusals across the board. The most common reason we are seeing for refusals, and a line that has become a source of dread for the industry, is the assertion that students might earn more in Australia than in their home countries,” Blake told The PIE.

“[Previous intervention] caused reputational damage to Australia that we normally need to sandpaper cricket balls to achieve”

“Such a rationale, if universally applied, threatens to upend student mobility entirely, leading to devastating effects. Sadly, it seems we’re witnessing such a scenario unfold.”

ILSC/Greystone College Australia said despite its Level 1 Provider status, it has “noted a rise in student visa refusals in the past couple of months, particularly from some key countries”.

“What has been most surprising for us is that student profiles have not changed; in fact, we have experienced multiple cases where applicants with very similar circumstances and backgrounds received different outcomes,” vice president of Australian Operations, Lucas Chiusoli, said.

Managing director of Lexis Education, Ian Pratt, said that the “ham-fisted and ill-considered ‘reforms’” are reminiscent of the last Labor government between 2007-2013.

“[The previous] clumsy intervention in the international education sector achieved quite literally nothing, cost the industry a fortune and caused reputational damage to Australia that we normally need to sandpaper cricket balls to achieve,” he said.

“It seems we’re off and running again. The government has claimed that it’s moving to ‘clean up dodgy providers’, which it has described to the industry as ‘involving more than a dozen and less than a hundred schools’.

“To achieve this, in the first instance, it appears that instructions have gone out to the Department of Home Affairs regarding visa assessments. Neither institutions nor students have been told what these instructions are, yet visas are being refused at the highest rate in history according to them. So, it’s chaos.”

It is “shocking” to see highly ranked state universities taking drastic steps to cancel thousands of previously accepted applications, Blake continued.

Similar to comments from IEAA’s Phil Honeywood, Blake said the move was likely in an effort to pre-emptively comply with new Home Affairs criteria which has not yet officially been adopted.

The majority of the sector supports efforts to root out unscrupulous actors, but the current approach “seems to involve a broad, indiscriminate crackdown that has thrown the entire industry into disarray”, he added.

“Providers and students need to have transparency & clarity”

The Home Affairs has produced an action plan on the migration strategy, but the current lack of clarity regarding criteria, timelines and compliance measures has “has left both providers and students in limbo, hindering their ability to plan effectively for 2024 and beyond”.

“Providers and students need to have transparency & clarity around the student visa application process and currently there is none,” Blake told The PIE.

“We must remain united in our advocacy for clear, transparent policies that uphold the integrity of our sector while ensuring the continued wellbeing of our students and institutions.”

Chiusoli at ILSC/Greystone College Australia added that institutions and recruiters face a lack of clarity “about how to ensure student recruitment meets the expectations of the Australian government”.

“Rejection letters provide little to no guidance on the decision-making process resulting in no meaningful change in student acceptance profiles,” he said.

Pratt also spoke of wholesale disruption through the entire sector.

It’s no mean feat for students to meet criteria to have their applications accepted at universities and decision by universities to cancel those applications is “astonishing”, he said.

“You can imagine how the rest of the sector is reeling. Criteria have not officially changed, so all that is happening is perfectly eligible applicants, who are seeking a student visa for perfectly legitimate reasons, are being refused on entirely confected grounds.”

Only accepting visas from countries where students could earn more than in Australia, also highlighted by Blake, “should effectively kill off student mobility from every country outside Norway and Switzerland”, Pratt stated.

“A ‘dozen’ dodgy providers need dealing with, and they take a hatchet to the entire sector, including leading state universities. Make no mistake, we’re talking billions of dollars of lost earnings.”

A group of 16 universities have said they expect to lose $310 million in revenue.

“Meanwhile, Home Affairs claims that nothing has changed, meaning senior management there is either entirely ignorant of their own Department, or lying through their teeth. Either way, it’s not ideal.”

Pratt lays the blame with the government.

“A distracted and struggling government allowed ‘Covid Emergency Visas’ – basically an unskilled work visa incentivising former students to leave the student visa framework – to continue to be offered until this month, years after borders have reopened and the Covid crisis obviously over.

“As a result, they blew out the migration intake by 200,000 people, and have now, being attacked by the Greens in the inner cities on housing, turned on the international education sector to clean up the mess entirely of the government’s making.”

(Update Feb 16 11:28a.m GMT: comment from ILSC have been added to this article)

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