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Sharp decline in net migration amid huge student visa rejections

A 20% decrease in student visa grants is the most substantial decline in two decades.

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Australia is poised for a significant reduction in net migration following the rejection of thousands of overseas student visa applications, marking a 20% decrease in student visa grants — the most substantial decline in two decades.

This adjustment in the education program stands as the primary driver behind the anticipated decrease in the total migrant intake to 375,000 for the current financial year, with projections suggesting a further decline to 250,000 in the subsequent year.

Australia boasts a substantial international student population, with an increasing number opting to extend their stay by pursuing subsequent courses. However, recent data reveals record numbers of overseas student visa rejections, driven by a decline in the visa grant rate to 80%, the lowest since records began in 2005. December figures indicate a 20% decrease compared to the previous year, signaling a potential downturn in arrivals for the upcoming academic year.

The number of overseas students in Australia exceeds 650,000, and an increasing proportion of them are extending their stays by enrolling in additional courses. Specifically, out of this total, 150,000 students are currently on their second student visa, indicating a growing trend of students choosing to further their education in the country.

In December, fewer student visas were granted compared to November, indicating a potential decline in arrivals for the upcoming academic year. This drop, which is 20% lower than last year’s figures, aligns with the Department’s goal of reducing international student visa grants from 370,000 to 290,000 this year. They expect this number to slightly decrease further.

The migration strategy implemented by the government last year has ushered in stricter English-language tests for students, requiring them to demonstrate genuine intent and imposing challenges for those unable to secure employment addressing skill shortages—a prerequisite for visa retention. The government remains open to additional measures, including potential caps on student numbers or heightened visa application fees.

However, the impact of these visa cuts varies across educational institutions. While leading universities remain relatively unaffected, private colleges with lower visa approval ratings bear the brunt of the adjustments. Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil issued Ministerial Direction 107, instructing officials to prioritise visa applications from universities with a proven track record, while placing lower priority on those from institutions with historical compliance issues.

The classification system, ranging from “tier one” for universities with exemplary records to “tier three” for institutions with recurrent problems, reflects this prioritisation strategy. Notably, the Group of Eight universities predominantly occupies the top tier, while private vocational education colleges feature predominantly in the lowest tier.

These developments stem from the government’s commitment to curbing migration levels, particularly in response to concerns over integrity issues within the higher education sector. Additionally, the closure of the Pandemic Event Visa program, which attracted over 100,000 individuals with no fees or skills tests, contributes to the overall decline in migration intake.

Immigration policy expert Dr Abul Rizvi says the stock is also affected by those skilled temporary entrants who secure permanent residence, mainly visa employer-sponsored visas, as well as the strength of the labour market.

“The number of skilled temporary entrants in Australia plunged in 2014-15 when the unemployment rate increased to six per cent,” wrote Dr Rizvi in a recent article.

In the face of political pressure and a surge in net migration numbers in recent years, the government remains resolute in its objective to return migration levels to pre-pandemic norms.

Australia’s Shadow Immigration Minister Dan Tehan had expressed concern over the overwhelming number of international students here in Australia. He told Sky News Australia, “Record numbers of international students are still coming. This is way too much. We are in a housing crisis, and rents have skyrocketed. People can’t even get to see doctors. Cities are getting crowded.”

This shift in net migration dynamics underscores the evolving landscape of Australia’s visa policies and its broader implications for international education and workforce dynamics.

Comparing the six months to December 2023 with the same period in 2022, the Department of Home Affairs data revealed intriguing trends among major nationalities applying for skilled temporary visas. Onshore grants saw a decline in numbers across several key nationalities, with India leading the chart at 1,996 grants compared to 4,119 previously. Conversely, offshore grants witnessed a similar pattern, with India again at the forefront but with a substantial decrease from 12,556 to 6,392 grants. Notable fluctuations were also observed in the visa grants for China, the Philippines, and the UK, signifying potential shifts in migration patterns and preferences among skilled workers.

The report also shed light on significant shifts in primary skilled temporary visa grants concerning various industry sectors. A decline in sectors such as information, media, and telecommunications was juxtaposed with increases in health and social assistance, agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. Surprisingly, despite traditionally low salaries, there was a notable increase in visa grants for the agriculture sector, prompting concerns about potential exploitation of workers. Moreover, the rise in sectors like mining and manufacturing hints at evolving economic landscapes and emerging opportunities.

Despite a robust labour market, skilled temporary entrants contributed relatively little to the record net migration in 2022-23. Analysts attribute this phenomenon to state governments’ increased utilisation of state-nominated visas and the implementation of more generous temporary graduate provisions.

Read More: Student visa policies tightening as Int‘l student numbers “too high”

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