Australia's new visa rules unlikely to affect students from Singapore

Australia's new visa rules unlikely to affect students from Singapore
Australia’s moves to rein in the lucrative international education sector follow concerns it has grown out of control.
PHOTO: Unsplash

SYDNEY — Australia has tightened rules for international students to reduce numbers and improve quality, amid concerns that students?— particularly from South Asia —?have primarily been coming to work rather than study.

The measures, introduced on Dec 11, are unlikely to affect Singapore students, who mainly attend high-ranking universities that have strict application procedures and are not viewed as being at risk of attracting non-genuine students.

The government's moves to rein in the lucrative international education sector follow concerns it has grown out of control since the end of Covid-19 border closures.

There are currently more than 860,000 people in Australia on student visas or post-study work visas, amounting to more than three?per cent of the nation's population of 26.9 million.

Of the 746,080 foreign citizens who studied in Australia in 2023, 159,485 came from China, 122,391 from India and 60,258 from Nepal. There were 6,515 students from Singapore.

But the surge in arrivals —?international student numbers were up 31 per cent in 2023 —?has prompted concerns that large numbers of students are primarily coming to work.

The concerns have reportedly centred on those from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan attending vocational colleges that offer courses in fields such as business and management.

To address workforce shortages during the pandemic, the government removed caps on the number of hours that foreign students can work —?a move that led to the use of student visas as a pathway to work.

In July, a limit of 48 hours of work a fortnight was imposed on foreign students, effectively stemming the influx of non-genuine students.

In a report on Dec 11, the government said the recent growth in international education was "partly driven by non-genuine students and unscrupulous education providers". Some vocational colleges have been accused of offering cheap courses with few resources and poor education standards, to enable applicants to qualify for student visas and acquire work rights.

The report outlined measures to overhaul the sector, including tougher English-language requirement tests and reduced work rights.

The measures, which aim to ensure students are "genuine" and not merely coming to work, have been largely welcomed as a way to improve standards and limit the growth of the sector. The government is under pressure to reduce the current record high influx of migrants, which includes the large number of students.

Mr Navneet Mittal, vice-president of Asian International Students of Australia, an organisation that supports international students from Asia, told The Straits Times that he supported the new rules, which would help lift the quality of education at vocational institutions.

Universities, which already have much higher admission standards, are unlikely to be unaffected but may see a small drop in enrolments due to the higher language requirements, he said.

"The quality of the students in Australia has gone down," he said. "Post-Covid, a lot of people entered Australia with very basic English skills and went to a vocational college to get a foot in Australia, and then they live here to work. The study is secondary."

The international education sector in Australia is worth about A$30 billion (S$26.4 billion) a year. It is the fourth-largest export sector and provides a steady flow of casual workers for jobs in the hospitality and tourism industries.

The government report proposed greater scrutiny of applications of students deemed a higher risk of being non-genuine —?based on factors such as where they plan to study and whether their course is in line with their career progression —?as well as stricter limits on work rights of some graduates.

Students completing master's degrees by coursework or doctorates will now only be able to receive work visas that last two years and three years respectively, down from three years and four years. International students cannot typically move directly to citizenship but can seek work visas that set them on a path to applying for permanent residency and eventually citizenship.

The government is also cracking down on "visa hopping", which involves students going from course to course —?sometimes moving from university degrees to cheaper vocational courses —?to prolong their stay in Australia.

The changes are not expected to significantly affect most Singaporean students in Australia, who mostly attend the country's eight leading research-intensive universities.

None of these universities is deemed high-risk, so applications will not be subject to additional scrutiny, International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood told ST.

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"The changes [to work rights and English-language requirements] put us back into line with countries that we compete against, such as the UK and Canada," he said.

Some Singapore students may actually find that their visa processing is now quicker and easier, as the new government measures allocate an additional A$19 million to assist with checking visas.

Education Minister Jason Clare said on Dec 12 that international education was important for the economy and university sector, and helped to promote Australia's standing abroad. But he said the government needed to ensure that students and education providers do not abuse the system.

"These reforms will help to make sure that we maintain quality and protect the integrity of the system," he told ABC Radio.

"[International education] doesn't just make our universities money, it helps to make sure that when students come here and then go home, they take with them a love and affection for Australia, and that's invaluable in the world that we live in."

The government said it wanted to slow the growth of the international education sector and will announce further changes in 2024. It has not ruled out putting a cap on the number of students allowed each year, though such a move is considered unlikely.

Honeywood said the new changes should help to ensure that a cap is not required.

"Overall, the government needs international?students," he said. "It has to be careful about turning the tap off."

ALSO READ:?Australia plans to halve migrant intake, tighten student visa rules

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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