Hundreds of PhD students from countries including Iran, China and Pakistan are turning to alternative study-abroad destinations after lengthy delays have seen some students wait for up to three years for visa approvals because their intended area of study is viewed as a possible risk to Australia’s national security. 

Speaking to The Guardian in Australia in January this year, Chinese PhD candidate Melody Zhao said that she had been waiting for almost a year for visa approval after receiving a full scholarship to study data science at Deakin University, and had to defer her commencement date four times. 

The Guardian reported that Zhao is a member of a WeChat group of 1,000 offshore Chinese student visa applicants who have applied for postgraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields, and have been waiting as long as three years to learn of visa outcomes. The Pie News has reported that over 300 Iranian students are believed to be impacted by the delays.  

The delays are a result of Australian government policy stating that postgraduate research students hoping to study in Australia in certain STEM subject areas must undergo additional security checks because their area of study is seen as posing a risk to Australia’s national security. 

Australian academics have expressed their frustration at the situation, saying that the loss of these students is damaging Australia’s ability to innovate as well as Australia’s reputation as an international study destination. University of Queensland Professor Glenn King, who leads a team researching the use of venom to treat chronic pain has given an example of what he describes as ‘absurd policy’ on a Group of Eight podcast. In the podcast, Professor King describes the story of a “brilliant” Chinese PhD candidate who had already completed her honours degree at UQ, and had done “extraordinary work” in the area and but was declared “unfit to study in Australia on that topic because she might be developing weapons of mass destruction”. 

Xiao Qian, China’s ambassador to Australia has also said that Australia’s strict policy in this area is negatively influencing student attitudes towards studying in Australia, telling Australia’s National Press Club that “This is a very much not a normal kind of practice in many other countries”. 

Many impacted students have since turned to destinations such as the UK, US, Canada and Europe, where visa rules are more lenient.