Australia’s international education sector is facing significant disruption due to a sharp spike in student visa rejection rates, rescinded offers to some international students, and a pause in recruitment in some markets by some providers. The resultant chaos has lead to fears that Australia may follow the lead of Canada, and impose a cap on international student numbers.

Visa rejections

The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that a massive 20% drop in student visa approval rates, the most significant shift in two decades, meant that “Australia is on track for a steep fall in net migration”. “The cut to the education programme is the biggest single factor in driving the total migrant intake down to 375,000 this financial year and putting it on course for 250,000 the following year.”

Analysis of visa lodgement and grant data by international education industry journal The Koala News shows that in January 2024, applicants to higher education, ELICOS and vocational education and training providers had their lowest January grant rates on record. Applicants applying to study with vocational education and training providers were the hardest hit, with a 17.8% reduction in approvals this January compared to January 2023. Higher education visa approvals were down 3.4% this January compared to last.

The refusals are linked to Australia’s new migration strategy, which requires prospective students to provide evidence of higher savings levels than previously, higher levels of English language proficiency, and for students to pass a “Genuine Student Test.” The Koala News reported that it had obtained wording from visa rejection letters, noting that while there are variations, the following text is consistent:

“I have considered all the information provided with the visa application. Given the comparatively greater economic opportunities in Australia and the applicant’s own country, I am not satisfied that the applicant is a genuine applicant for entry and stay as a student.”

Concerns have been raised by some in the international student recruitment sector that a number of genuine students have been refused visas, and that pursuing a strategy of continuing to refuse visas when visa requirements have been met is likely to cause significant damage to Australia’s reputation. The visa refusals are reported to be disproportionately impacting students from India, Nepal and Pakistan, Australia’s second, third and ninth-largest sending markets. As an example, The Koala News analysis highlights that India’s overall grant rate was 87.8% in January 2023, but fell to 67.2% in January 2024. Pakistan’s grant rate was 90.4% in January 2023 but plummeted to 34.3% in January 2024.

Rescinded offers

The spike in visa refusals is reported to have caused some higher education institutions to rescind letters of offer to some students who they consider to be at risk of a visa refusal, driven by concerns that increased visa refusals will increase the provider’s immigration risk rating. In Australia, visa approvals and processing times are linked to whether an education provider is categorised as having an Immigration Risk Rating Level 1, 2 or 3 under Australia’s Simplified Student Visa Framework.

Concern about being re-categorised with a higher immigration risk rating is reportedly causing some providers to go a step further and pause recruitment from certain markets. As an example, ICEF Monitor quotes a letter they obtained, written by an Australian school to education agents, in which the school advises of its decision to pause recruitment from offshore Pakistan and Nigeria:

“Unfortunately, due to significant and recent changes in the way the Australian Government are assessing student visa applications, [Institution] has been left with no alternative other than to pause all applications from offshore Pakistan and Nigeria. This decision will remain under constant review, pending information and clarity from the Australian Government Department of Home Affairs.”

Australia’s tougher stance on migration is linked to the country’s housing crisis and unanticipated growth in the Australian population. The Australian population reached 27 million on the afternoon of 24 January 2024, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), two decades earlier than projected.

Student cap concerns

Dr Abul Rizvi, former Deputy Secretary of Australia’s Department of Immigration has warned that high rates of visa refusals is an unsustainable approach to controlling net migration as it “wastes the resources of applicants, education providers and visa processing operations.” Dr Rizvi warns that there is a risk that the “Government will be under pressure to take more panicked measures such as a student visa cap” if net migration doesn’t fall enough.

International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) Chief Executive Phil Honeywood told the Times Higher Education:

“Semester one is not looking very good for most education providers” and added that IEAA would be “strongly lobbying key government ministers to haul the situation back to some sort of equilibrium.”