By Clay Lucas/Sydney Morning Herald
Sydney, May 22: Universities in Victoria and NSW have banned the recruitment of students from some Indian states as the federal government has voiced fresh concern over increasing visa fraud.
The move comes as rejection rates for Indian applicants across all Australian universities have soared to their highest level in a decade, with one in four applications now being deemed as “fraudulent” or “non-genuine” by the Department of Home Affairs.
The surge in rejections has accompanied a sharp increase in the volume of applications, prompting fresh calls for regulation of education agents who arrange visas for foreign students.
News of the latest bans on students from specific Indian states, from Federation University in Victoria and Western Sydney University in NSW, came as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Australia on Monday night, ahead of an event in Sydney on Tuesday with Anthony Albanese.
Federation University on Friday wrote to education agents instructing them to no longer recruit students from the Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh.
“The university has observed a significant increase in the proportion of visa applications being refused from some Indian regions by the Department of Home Affairs,” the letter to agents said. “We hoped this would prove to be a short-term issue [but] it is now clear there is a trend emerging.”
A quarter of the 5500 people enrolled at Federation University are international students. Federation University did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Western Sydney University told agents, in a letter obtained by this masthead, they must no longer recruit students from Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat, noting that large numbers of Indian students who began courses in 2022 had dropped out.
“A large number of Indian students who commenced study in 2022 intakes have not remained enrolled, resulting in a significantly high attrition rate,” the university told agents in a message sent on May 8. “The regions within India that have been identified as presenting the highest attrition risk are Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat.
“Due to the urgency of this matter, the university has decided to pause recruitment from these regions in India, effective immediately.”
The university said the ban would be in place for at least two months and that additional measures would be taken “to address the issue of non-genuine students enrolling with the university from these regions, including changes to application screening, stricter admissions conditions and increases to commencement fees”.
A spokeswoman for Western Sydney University said the decision was not taken lightly but was necessary to protect the integrity of the institution’s international student program.
In April, this masthead revealed that at least four other Australian universities – Victoria, Edith Cowan, Torrens and agents working for Southern Cross – had this year paused recruitment from specific Indian states. Two other universities – Wollongong and Flinders – altered their entry process in March for overseas students from countries considered “high risk”, but both said they were not restricting enrolments from specific Indian states.
Australia is on track for its biggest annual intake of Indian students across universities and vocational courses, topping 2019’s watermark of 75,000.
The federal Department of Education has flagged that it is aware of “unscrupulous behaviour” in the international education sector, including the offering of inducements to encourage students to move from universities to cheaper vocational education providers.
On Monday, federal Education Minister Jason Clare noted the high number of Indian students in Australia, and said the government expected “all students, regardless of nationality, [to be] treated fairly and appropriately … including during the application process”.
The Department of Home Affairs told a federal parliamentary inquiry last week that Australian universities were now refusing 20.1 per cent of applications, a figure up from 12.5 per cent of applicants in 2019. The rejection rate for applications from India is 24.3 per cent, the highest since 2012.
Alison Garrod, the assistant secretary from the temporary visas branch of Home Affairs, said there had been “an increase in non-genuine applicants and fraud in student visa applications” since the start of 2022, driven by countries where the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 was particularly high.
Applications to Australian universities from international students are almost entirely facilitated by education agents. Universities and colleges pay agents commissions worth thousands of dollars for every student enrolment they arrange.
Federal Labor MP Julian Hill, once the head of international education for the Victorian government, told the inquiry that the “business model of dodgy agents and dodgy providers exploiting people” needed to be better regulated.
“Anyone can be an agent. I can be an agent, you can be, or my dog can be an agent selling Australian education,” Hill said.
“There’s no way to kick out a bad agent. If one provider says, ‘I’m not doing business with you anymore’, that agent can keep flogging the same dodgy product and buying their new Ferrari with the next few providers. You can never get kicked out of the system, no matter how bad you are.”
Peter Hurley, the director of Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute, said Australian universities ultimately did a good job of reducing fraudulent international student applications.
“You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of applications, so it’s a really big beast,” Hurley said.
But Hurley added that a series of reviews of the immigration system, including those by former public service chief Martin Parkinson, and former Victorian chief police chief Christine Nixon, were “all saying the same thing: that there are problems in certain parts of the migration system, and we need to find a way to make sure that it’s not being misused”.
The boom in applications from South Asia began after the Morrison government removed a 20-hour weekly limit on the amount of work students could do, in January 2022. The move meant there were no longer restrictions on how many hours students could work, encouraging those wanting a low-skill Australian work visa to apply to cheaper education institutions. The Albanese government will on July 1 reintroduce a work limit, but lift it to 24 hours a week.
International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood last week told the inquiry that agents were too often teaming up with the families of Indian students to get them into the country, and repeated his call for greater regulation.
“We find a lot of parents are desperate to get their child an education outcome in a country like Australia and there is a cultural reliance, particularly on the subcontinent, in the local education agent who by word of mouth has been seen to have successful outcomes,” Honeywood said.
“Often the students are the victim of this same culture of exploitation where you have the offshore agent who has got the cousin with a separate office in Melbourne, maybe with a different company name.
“And so the offshoring agent takes a commission from the student’s family to get them into the country, and then what often happens is that the cousin based in Melbourne as an onshore agent will then actually poach the same student off the university or the quality private provider and have them placed, for an additional commission, into another provider.”