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Further cuts expected in Australia amid “radical change” worldwide

International student numbers in Australia will continue to plummet as the new migration strategy is implemented in an attempt to curb migration levels amid a housing shortage, stakeholders fear.

Woman carrying passport and wheeling bag.Photo: pexels

Australia is not alone in its plans to cut migration through limiting student numbers, Marginson said

During an event hosted by Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education this week, speakers flagged that visa approval rates could cost the sector.

Immigration expert Abul Rizvi said the government had not looked at overseas students through a net migration lens before, and efforts to reduce the numbers are a consequence of the very high levels seen following the pandemic.

“In 2022/23 student contribution to net migration was still a very high 51.7% – that is a 267,000 student contribution of a record net migration of 518,000,” said Rizvi.

“We’ve never been at those levels and now the government has decided that net migration, long term, should be reduced to 235,000 per annum.”

To reach that figure, there can be no more than 40,000 students contributing to net migration per annum, he said.

Student visa rejections have already increased through subjective decisions made by immigration officials based on the existing genuine temporary entrant test, and those refusal rates won’t change when key elements of the migration strategy come into effect on March 23, Rizvi continued.

The introduction of a genuine student test to identify people suspected of coming to Australia to work rather than study means “refusal rates will just be based on a different subjective criteria, albeit a slightly better one”, said Rizvi.

The migration strategy, released in December last year, has meant increasing numbers of students have received visa rejections and education providers scrambling to prepare for the new requirements as they are implemented.

According to recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, student visa applications and approvals have fallen by more than a third over the 12 months to February.

There have also been reports of prospective university students being instructed to withdraw their applications before their visas have been returned by the Department of Home Affairs because of concerns they will not meet the new requirements.

The changes will affect vocational education providers more than higher education providers, said education consultant Claire Fields.

The questions asked in the genuine student test include explaining how the course will help in future employment prospects.

“A radical change to the conditions of cross border collaboration and international education is underway”

Applicants will now be required to answer a series of questions about the benefits they expect from their studies, details of their family and community ties and why they have chosen Australia to study in.

However, applicants seeking a visa for vocational courses may encounter challenges demonstrating this aspect through the test because unlike Australian university degrees, Australian VET qualifications lack broad global recognition, said Fields.

“If the genuine student test is implemented as it is discussed in the migration strategy, it will definitely see a huge drop in numbers in the VET sector,“ she said.

The strategy also provides powers to suspend education providers that target international students in an attempt to clean up so-called ‘ghost colleges”, where students receive little education and are engaged in low-paid work. The highest-risk providers are expected to be rapidly issued warning notices, giving them six months to improve or be shut down.

In addition to the financial impact on education providers, the consequences of limiting overseas students have far-reaching implications for global collaboration, cultural exchange and economic growth, said Simon Marginson, professor of Higher Education, University of Oxford, also speaking at the seminar.

Australia is not alone in its plans to cut migration through limiting student numbers, he said, arguing the strategy is a response to changing geopolitics and a move away from globalisation in recent years.

“The fact that reductions in numbers are now taking place indicates a common response to nativist, anti migration pressures. Commercial providers in Canada, the UK and Australia have all introduced visa regimes that are substantially reducing the inward flow of students,” Marginson said.

While the reasons given in Australia and Canada have been housing shortages and the use of public facilities by students and dependents in the UK may have a material basis, Marginson argued, they could have been invoked at any time in the past.

“A radical change to the conditions of cross border collaboration and international education is underway,” he said.

“The fact that the reductions in student visa numbers are now taking place indicates a new willingness to give priority to border security over international trade.”

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