Australia’s Simplified Student Visa Framework, announced last year, came into force this month, promising to level the playing field by enabling students across all education sectors to access streamlined visa processing.
The new framework has been broadly welcomed by agents and educators, though some have pointed to the devil in the detail in terms of processing, leaving some hiccups to overcome.
As well as widening access to streamlined visa processing, which until now has only been open to some universities and a handful of private providers, the SSVF condenses the available student visa categories from eight to two.
It also moves all visa applications online and no longer restricts the length of time students can undertake English language study for.
Kent Anderson, deputy vice-chancellor (community & engagement) at the University of Western Australia, described the move as a “radical advancement” and added: “The Australian government should be commended for such a progressive and creative approach to regulation.”
“It does shift the risk, but universities have been dealing with this for a couple of years through the SVP,” he explained. “We now have the systems in place and are quite comfortable with administering it.
“As the SSVF pushes this process to more institutions, those institutions will need to learn to handle that responsibility.”
One crucial but easily-overlooked change is that because all visa processing will be done online, students must pay for their visas using a credit or debit card.
Online payments could be especially problematic in student source markets where financial export regulations restrict the dollar payments individuals or companies can send overseas, such as India, preventing agencies from paying on behalf of a large number of student clients.
“Every student doesn’t have a credit card, so if a student is paying from his or her credit card that’s fine but as an agent, I can’t pay on behalf of everyone,” Rahul Gandhi, president of the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India, told The PIE News.
“If as an agency, we lodge 100 applications, then the [Directorate General of Economic Enforcement] can get back to us after 10 or 15 years saying ‘How did you allow this payment to happen?’” he said. “This can lead to a lot of chaos in the industry.”
AAERI has been urging students to get a credit card at least six-to-seven weeks before submitting their application to enable them to pay the visa fees.
But Gandhi acknowledged, “There were only few limited agencies who could lodge e-visa [applications], that has come to an end. That’s a good thing.”
Under the new framework, visa applications will be assessed on a risk framework based on two main factors: the immigration risk attached to their chosen education institution; and students’ country of citizenship.
Countries and institutions will each be assigned a risk level of between one and three, which will determine whether or not students can access streamlined visa processing.
For example, streamlined visa processing will be given to applicants from level one countries, regardless of which institution they are applying to. This means they will have to provide less evidence as part of their application.
Institutions’ risk levels will not be published, but agents have said it will be possible to work this out based on what is asked of students when they apply.
“Some institutions have announced their rating to the market and there is much chatter online with some commentators trying to work out institutional profiles based on the online tools,” noted Kelly Smith, pro vice-chancellor at La Trobe University and chair of the Australian Universities International Directors’ Forum.
“The difference though between the categories is relatively small, with only English language and finances being more rigorously checked by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection where the institution and country profile puts the applicant in a higher risk category,” he explained.
The impact of risk levels becoming public remains to be seen, and may depend on how agents and students perceive them.
The new arrangements mean that it will be necessary for students to apply for a new visa when moving between levels (for example, between a VET provider and university).
The new system is unlikely to affect students switching between courses, and therefore won’t make a dent in the problem of ‘course-hopping’ that has been the subject of much debate in the industry in recent years. However, if a student switches providers, any subsequent cancellation of their visa will affect the initial providers’ risk profile.
“This remains a contentious point for high quality education providers and offers the opportunity for students to take advantage of streamlined arrangements and subsequently change (hop) providers once in Australia,” commented Brett Blacker, CEO of English Australia.
Nevertheless, providers have welcomed the shifting of responsibility for visa compliance to them and said that institutions that have already been designated ‘low risk’ under the previous Streamlined Visa Program system will see little difference.
Anderson predicted that providers which haven’t previously had access to streamlined visa processing may have an “overly cautious” approach to recruitment to begin with.
With this in mind, as it’s up to institutions to decide how to assess international student applications, Blacker advised: “Education providers are now focused on risk mitigation measures but a balanced approach must be applied to ensure genuine students and high quality agents are not deterred by overly onerous assessment conditions.”
The lifting of restrictions on Elicos study time should have an additional benefit for the English language sector, particularly for markets such as China, where students traditionally need more English teaching as a foundation for further study.
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