As the role of international students has grown increasingly important in the eyes of national governments, the question of how to balance the needs of the education sector with those of national security and immigration control has become a thorny issue. At the heart of this lies student visa policy. Recent moves by the governments of a number of major international student recruitment markets are just the latest in their attempt to walk the tightrope of these two competing aims.
Simplifying the process
Speed and transparency of visa processing is one of the key areas of concern for applicants, and one which can be highly influential in the decision where to study. In New Zealand, a new immigration system, the Immigration Global Management System (IGMS), is designed to speed up visa processing. The process, which began in early 2012, will see the first changes introduced in 2013, with completion set for mid-2015. According to Immigration New Zealand (INZ), applicants will enjoy “a transformed experience”, which will include their own individual online immigration account, enabling them to track progress on their application.
Education New Zealand spokesperson, Irene Hamer, has welcomed the changes, which, she says, “will enable INZ to better meet the needs of the export education industry and international students”. She adds that the new system will also involve “proactively contacting students regarding future entitlements, and encouraging the retention of their skills”. In addition, major amendments to the INZ health instructions will, she says, “reduce red tape for international students and other migrants, and greatly reduce the cost and hassle for students, who will save around NZ$17 million (US$14 million) a year in medical costs.”
Education New Zealand is also playing its own part in efforts to speed up visa processing through a recently-signed memorandum of understanding with Immigration New Zealand. Through this agreement, New Zealand Specialist Agents (NZSA) will be able to have visa applications processed within 10 working days, with their own dedicated point of contact within all INZ branches. This will begin operating fully in 2013, with India paving the way from August 2012, reveals Hamer. “NZSA are very excited about this news.”
In both Australia and the UK, meanwhile, visa reforms have been on-going for a number of years, with industry bodies expending much lobbying effort to try and ensure that the sector’s needs are accommodated.
In the UK, one of the latest moves has been to announce a new fast-track for low-risk visa candidates; at the same time, interviews have been re-introduced for those regarded as high-risk. This latter move has received a somewhat ambivalent response. “It can be seen as... continuing to make the process more and more secure against the tiny minority who seek to abuse the system,” remarks Ian Smith, Visa & Compliance Manager for Higher Education, UK and Europe, at Study Group. On the other hand, he would also endorse the comment of English UK Chief Executive, Tony Millns, that the move represents “another step away from the ‘objective’ electronic Tier 4 system” that the 2009 reforms were designed to provide.
Only time will tell how it will work in practice. However, Millns comments that the change is unlikely to have any appreciable impact for the UK English language sector, since, he says, “We receive almost no students from the high-risk countries [such as Pakistan and Nigeria] which are likely to see interviews reintroduced.”
Meanwhile, according to Smith, the low-risk candidate changes have had a largely positive response. “Agents and students are more confident in applying for a Tier 4 visa to the UK, and the ease of the application process has resulted in an increase in numbers, as well as a more positive view of the UK for students...,” he says. Nevertheless, he points out that not all markets on the low-risk list have seen any difference in numbers applying. “Students still prefer to choose their study destination based on the ability to work, in order to supplement the costs of their studies,” he notes, with the result that the USA and Australia are often favoured over the UK.
Australia’s own attempts to rebalance its visa system follow a serious decline in international enrolments, in the wake of the introduction of new, more rigorous procedures in 2010. The Knight Review, which took place in 2011, raised a number of issues, which have now begun to be addressed. The first round of changes, at the end of 2011, included new post-study work rights for higher education graduates, and, more controversially, a new “genuine temporary entrant” criterion, which is in addition to the requirement for students to demonstrate that they are bona fide students. “[This] has, in Acpet’s view, not been well handled by the government,” says Acpet’s Claire Field, “and is an unnecessary requirement, which has seen some very good and genuine students refused entry to Australia.”
The second tranche of reform, in March 2012, included the reduction of risk levels for 29 countries, followed by the granting of low-risk, Assessment Level 1, status to those applying to public universities effectively providing them with a streamlined service.
Expected imminently is the result of the review of the risk assessment level framework another critical part of the process which, according to Field, is expected to announce “new priority visa-processing arrangements for students wishing to study at the best non-university providers,” including both public and private vocational education and training and English language colleges. While the criteria to be used to determine which providers are included in the scheme has yet to be announced, “We anticipate it will focus heavily on a provider’s track-record of visa compliance,” Field says.
Post study work route
As well as the right to work during their studies, another factor that can swing a student’s decision where to study is the availability of post-study work rights. For English Australia’s Sue Blundell, this represents “one of the key reforms coming out of the Knight Review that will position Australia as a strongly competitive destination for international students.”
Students graduating from 2013 who gained their student visa after November 2011 will be eligible, irrespective of whether they studied at a public university or at a private higher education institution, and, reports Field, there is evidence that students are looking to take advantage of these changes, with some having deferred entry this year, she says, to start their course next year, and thus be eligible for post-study work rights.
Nevertheless, for Acpet, the battle continues, as it pushes to have the same rights to be extended to the vocational education and training (VET) sector. “We believe such a decision has benefits for Australian employers,” comments Field, “particularly as many of [the country’s] leading companies look to engage more with Asia.”
Alongside these developments, the UK has recently had second thoughts about its own plans to withdraw the post-study work route, which allowed students to stay in the UK for up to two years. In response to criticism, it has now has introduced a new post-study work route, whereby international students who show “entrepreneurial flair” while studying at UK universities will be allowed to remain in the country to develop their ideas. From April 2013, a new 12-month visa will allow exceptional non-EU students to remain in the country for up to two years, if they are sponsored by a university.
Both New Zealand and Canada with its Canada Experience Class both currently provide a favourable climate for post-study working, and indications are that France may also liberalise its stance, after the new President, François Hollande, pledged to withdraw controversial restrictions imposed by the previous government.
While it is important for the industry that visa matters should be reformed in line with its needs, the virtues of stability are also strongly endorsed. “We have seen such a period of reform over the last year,” says Blundell of the Australian situation, “that the industry is really focused on wanting to finalise the reforms, so that we can move forward with a stable student visa programme that students and agents understand.”
North America focus
The USA and Canada have become the latest countries to link visa approval to the accrediting of educational institutions. Canada’s new system began in March this year, while the USA finally approved its own legislation in July 2012. It is some years now since Australia and New Zealand pioneered the linking of student visa approval to accreditation, but the strategy has gradually been adopted by other markets, including the UK in 2009.
The move has been welcomed in the USA both by language schools and universities. “This has brought long-overdue and most welcome regulatory standards to the sector, and will ‘weed out’ less than professional organisations,” comments Marco Pinna of TLA-The Language Academy in Fort Lauderdale.
Meanwhile, in Canada, Ken Gardner, President of Vancouver English Centre (VEC), observes, “This will add a layer of consumer protection by ensuring that visa students apply only to schools with certain minimum standards,” and he adds, “I am hopeful that the government will deem accreditation by Languages Canada to be required for designation as an authorised school.”
In Canada, this is just an initial instalment of a package of proposed visa reforms on which the government is currently consulting, and which would bring the country more in line with the UK model. Under the proposals, students granted study permits would be subject to a number of requirements. For example, they would be tracked and monitored after arrival, and would be required to study only at the institution named on their study permit. According to Gardner, these measures “will give immigration officials more confidence when processing applications,” which, he says, should result in a lower rejection rate. “I think these changes will result in benefits for Canadian schools, as well as our students.”
Transparency of processing visas remains another area to be tackled, however, “In some countries, [Canadian visa] applicants who are rejected do not usually receive detailed explanations of the reasons,” Gardner comments. “Consequently, agents and educators sometimes find it difficult to advise applicants as to whether or not they can realistically hope to have a successful application.”