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Visa processing impact still felt in major study destinations

Visa processing times globally are continuing to impact the recovery of the international education sector, with Canada continuing to be the most disadvantaged over other popular study destinations.

Student visa applications from Thailand, Colombia, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan have tripled since pre-Covid in 2019, Australia has announced. Photo: iStock

There are further concerns about the 17% of international students enrolled in Australia studying offshore online

The latest Navitas Agent Perception Survey, garnering some 900 responses from agents in October, found that the UK continues to be the strongest performer on perception of visa processing times, with some 78% rating it as good/very good, according to Jon Chew, global head of Insights and Analytics at Navitas.

“Unfortunately, Canada has gone from bad to worse, with only 32% rating visa processing times as good/very good and 40% rating it as poor/very poor,” he told The PIE.

“Unfortunately, Canada has gone from bad to worse”

With Australia improving slightly and the US deteriorating slightly, the two countries “largely remain on par at 59% and 52% good/very good, respectively”, he noted.

Earlier this year, International Education Association of Australia warned that “significant” student visa processing delays had “come at the worst possible time for Australia’s beleaguered international education sector”.

While the sector has welcomed the addition of an extra 500 visa staff, there are still concerns around inexperienced visa processing teams.

“On the one hand the sector is delighted that our new federal government quickly gave priority to student visa applications over other visa types and provided surge funding to employ 500 additional staff,” Phil Honeywood, CEO of IEAA, told The PIE.

“On the other hand, there are concerns that inexperienced visa processing staff are making some very strange and negative visa processing determinations.”

Work pressure remains an issue, with Australia’s Home Affairs department recently announcing that student visa applications from five countries have tripled since pre-Covid in 2019, he added. The countries include Thailand, Colombia, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan.

“Australia’s situation is not helped by the fact that it is increasingly difficult for visa assessment officers to tell genuine from non-genuine students apart,” Chew agreed.

“The uncapping of the hours that students can work while studying has turned the student visa into a de facto work visa, and thereby increased both the volume of applications and the complexity in telling genuine from non-genuine students apart.”

Australia is yet to “ascertain the extent to which the current uncapped work rights is the key determinant for applying to study in Australia over other countries”, Honeywood continued.

“Semester one is looking very healthy for our education providers. China is still, of course, looking more like a semester two recovery story.”

The option to defer to the June-July intake may “somewhat mitigate” any issues students face for the February-March intake in Australia, Chew suggested.

However, there are further concerns about the 17% of enrolled international students studying offshore online.

“Our national regulator, TEQSA, recently indicated that it wants to reinstate the maximum 30% of a course that can be studied in online mode,” Honeywood said.

“This has certainly caused a number of our providers, particularly those with high reliance on Chinese students, to lobby hard for an extension of the June, 2023 announced reinstatement deadline.”

Chew also indicated worries about the likelihood of visa approval.

The UK “continues to hold a commanding lead” at 89% of respondents to the October Navitas survey indicating good/very good for visa acceptance rates. Australia also has “relatively high” rating for visa acceptance rates at 75% good/very good.

Among agents in Nepal, Australia’s visa acceptance rating dropped to 67% good/very good, and for agents in Pakistan the survey showed 43% good/very good.

“These ratings may have dropped even further as official statistics indicate extremely low acceptance rates in recent months,” Chew stated.

“In the absence of clear communications, rumours abound. There are anecdotal reports of agents and students surmising that an immigration department or branch office has hit its “quota” for the year and will no longer be processing visas or issuing approvals until the clock resets. Similarly, some applicants believe that applying later when volumes subside will improve their chances of approval,” he added.

Honeywood also pointed to visa fraud being a “concern, particularly out of Nepal and three states in India”.

Recent immigration data has shown that visa approvals from India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka for student visas plummeted lately, with vocational education applicants particularly affected.

According to Honeywood, the Australian Home Affairs department has “reacted swiftly” to visa fraud concerns and “student visa approvals have been averaging only 9% out of Nepal for the past several months”.

“Hopefully, this will not prove to be an overreaction as time goes by,” he noted.

Australia has announced a comprehensive review of its migration system, following an investigation finding 14 allegedly “corrupt” colleges being used to traffic individuals into Australia, leading to criticism of VET regulator ASQA.

During International Education Week, Universities Canada emphasised that immigration is “a key part of the solution” to a talent crisis the country is facing, highlighting a backlog of nearly 900,000 temporary resident applications as of September 30, 2022.

“Canada is in a fierce global competition for talent,” Universities Canada president, Paul Davidson, said in a statement.

In many cases IRCC is not achieving its standard of processing study permits in 13 weeks, Universities Canada noted. In contrast, it takes only three weeks to issue these permits in the UK and US, it warned.

Chew suggested that Canada’s backlogs “are expected to persist into early 2023”.

In the US, the department of State has said it expects to reach pre‑pandemic visa processing levels by 2023, after doubling its hiring of US foreign service personnel.

The Wall Street Journal reported on November 17 that, like Australia, newer consular officers with “less expertise” can make more errors.

Waiving in-person interviews for some student applicants has been a factor for the US issuing “more student visas in FY 2022 than in any year since FY 2016”, the department emphasised. Sector stakeholders have called for temporary waiving of in-person interviews to be extended beyond the pandemic.

“To stay competitive, Canada must do better in its approach to visa processing – ensuring both speed and integrity,” Davidson added.

“The bottlenecks in visa processing create significant issues when they collide with the timing for major intakes”

The country’s government needs to “rethink and resource ways to decrease study permit processing time, and urgently address ongoing systemic process challenges, in collaboration and consultation with Canada’s universities”, Universities Canada said.

“As always, the bottlenecks in visa processing create significant issues when they collide with the timing for major intakes in the academic cycle,” Chew concluded.

Canada adopted a “world-leading” position by instituting a visa-turnaround time guarantee, assuring applicants of a visa decision by August for applications lodged by May, in 2021.

“This is the type of student-centric, intake-sensitive approach that will make destinations stand out,” he said.

However, the start of the academic year in September/ October “has been hugely affected by the visa backlog”.

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