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Australian universities agree to streamlined visa-processing rules

Universities will put their reputations on the line by signing up to the streamlined visa processing system. The government will monitor the system and publicise any warnings issued or loss of eligibility status.

The deadline for universities to decide to opt in was Feb. 14, but it is understood some are seeking extensions. The system is set to be in place in time for second semester enrolments after Universities Australia and the Immigration Department agreed to the guidelines, which shift significant responsibility for students on to universities to ensure they recruit only legitimate students.

In return, as recommended by last year’s Knight review, students with a certificate of enrolment from a participating university will be treated as lowest-risk when applying for visas, and as such will face fewer hurdles. In a win for advocates of language support, universities must demonstrate they have effective programs for continuing to improve the English-language standards of international students.

Participating universities must convince an assessment panel they are verifying language standards, have strategies to ensure students have enough money to support themselves, and are using agents focused on recruiting quality students.

Universities may also have to be more choosey in selecting partners because they will be held responsible for the behavior of students coming to them through pathway packages. It is understood some universities initially baulked at the increased obligations, but with rival universities keen to sign up to exploit the marketing boost they will get, most are expected to eventually join the system.

Universities Australia’s Margaret Gardner of RMIT, said the guidelines were a mature and good outcome for the sector, providing flexibility and putting requirements on the Immigration Department to discuss problems before taking action. She said the increased burdens were largely in line with what universities already did, but would prompt them to check the robustness of their systems.

“Every university that I know is saying we want to show we can do this very well,” Professor Gardner said. “That is the guarantee for both the public and the government.” There are hopes the streamlined system will boost flagging international student numbers, but Professor Gardner said the high Australian dollar remained a drag on the education market.

The Association for Academic Language and Learning welcomed the emphasis on English language support, which it says is often inadequate. AALL spokesman Alex Barthel said every university in the country had some form of language support, but the question was what criteria would be used. Universities are advised to submit an independent expert assessment of their English-language development strategies.

Universities have come under fire previously for poor English standards as they ramped up international student numbers. The Immigration Department will rate each participating university’s risk, based on the performance of its prospective and actual students against their visa obligations. The more students in breach of their visas, or with visas cancelled or refused, the higher a university’s risk weighting will be.

Large numbers of students subsequently applying for residency after their studies will also increase the risk level. There will be five assessment levels, but to be eligible for streamlined processing, universities must maintain at least an AL1 or AL2 rating, and those down to AL3 will have six months to improve before being thrown out.

The department will update the universities’ performance every six months so as to flag if early action may be needed to protect a university’s rating. There had been concerns in the sector that the risk levels would be treated as a misleading proxy for university quality, and the department has agreed not to publish the risk levels.

Queensland University of Technology deputy vice-chancellor (international) Scott Sheppard said the guidelines were a good basis for getting the system started, but there were some details and complexities that needed to be worked out. In particular, he said it was important the department recognized there was a level of “natural attrition” among international students beyond a university’s control, and this should not count against them.

Students who dropped out or failed risked being in breach of their visas, but he said the department had demonstrated goodwill to work through such issues. Participating universities will have to inform the department of their recruitment plans, which will be published, although commercially sensitive information will not. Universities will have to apply for re-registration under the system every two years.

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