Doctoral dreams dashed as Canberra puts visa applications on hold

Australia the biggest loser, universities warn, as protracted delays shepherd PhD applicants elsewhere

July 7, 2022
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Covid disruption, funding cuts and security concerns are putting overseas doctoral candidates in an untenable position, as many wait up to three years for Australia to resolve their visa applications.

A pre-pandemic visa processing logjam has not eased following the reopening of Australia’s borders, with the bouncing of applications between security agencies exacerbated by a reported A$875 million (£496 million) budget cut to the Department of Home Affairs – leaving would-be PhD students in limbo.

Anecdotal reports suggest that learners previously granted visas for undergraduate study are being rejected at postgraduate stage. Requests to convert from bridging to postgraduate research visas, usually considered a formality, have reportedly been denied to candidates from China and Iran.

Times Higher Education has also learned of Chinese students with valid visas being refused entry on arrival in Australia, after border officials scoured their phones for incriminating photographs.

The Department of Home Affairs would not confirm or deny these reports. Its statistics show that the median processing time for postgraduate research visas is about two months, with 90 per cent of the 10,000 or so annual applications finalised within eight months, and the grant rate for postgraduate research visa applications sitting at a healthy 97 per cent.

However, the grant rate does not take account of unresolved applications. Doctoral candidate Maryam Taheri, who administers a support group for Iranian visa applicants via the messaging app Telegram, said many had received no word about the progress of their applications after meeting early requests to supply additional information.

Ms Taheri said she knew of about 50 Iranians who had been awaiting visas for more than eight months, with at least 20 waiting over two years and some for 34 months.

She said she had a master’s degree in polymer engineering and had worked in industry and a university. Her scholarship to undertake PhD studies at UNSW Sydney, where she would be researching the use of bioinks in medicine, has already been deferred twice.

Fellow Iranian Mohammadhossein Esmaeili said he had applied for his visa in November 2020 and had received no updates since March 2021. He said the final option to defer his University of Queensland scholarships would “lapse” on 15 July.

Mr Esmaeili, who specialises in the biology of ageing and has co-authored nine journal articles, was due to undertake PhD research into immune cell disfunction that could spawn treatments for diseases including Covid-19. “My research has nothing to do with national security,” he said.

Two Pakistani doctoral candidates said they had been issued visas after waiting 18 months and two years, respectively. “In my case, they somehow got a positive response from security agencies, but many others are still waiting for visas for more than two years,” said computer engineer Suleman Rasheed.

Physicist Abdul Khaliq said he had withdrawn his visa application after waiting more than two years and was now studying in Warsaw.

The Group of Eight said two of its member institutions had reported that dozens of PhD candidates had experienced visa processing delays. Chief executive Vicki Thomson said waiting times had “not changed significantly” since before the pandemic, but when delays occurred they tended to be “protracted”.

They largely affected students from China, India, Iran, Pakistan, the US and Vietnam studying engineering, information technology, artificial intelligence, science, medicine, pharmacy and agriculture.

Jingmin Qian, a director of the Australia China Business Council, said she had been advised that only 15 per cent of Chinese doctoral candidates offered places at one university had been granted visas.

A university research administrator expressed sympathy for the students but was primarily worried about the consequences for Australia at a time of economic turmoil, because higher degree research students were “at the vanguard of where universities are able to generate innovation and knowledge capital”.

Canberra has promised to “urgently work” to reduce visa processing times and applications backlogs in skill shortage areas. Speaking at the Universities Australia conference on 6 July, education minister Jason Clare said he knew that the backlog was “a big issue”.

“I have asked the secretary of my department to work directly with the secretary of the Department of Home affairs on this. In the last few weeks, Home Affairs has brought on more than 100 new staff to assist with the backlog,” Mr Clare said.

The Department of Home Affairs was also developing “surge capacity” allowing staff across its global network to help manage visa application spikes from other parts of the world.

The International Education Association of Australia said that while this could help smooth bumps in visa processing workloads, it increased the risk of officials stalling visas because they misinterpreted applicants’ intentions. For example, applications from cultures where students normally took their partners abroad could raise suspicions among staff accustomed to dealing with students who travelled solo.

“Whilst it might be a temporary fix to pandemic lockdowns, a lot of international educational stakeholders are sceptical about the merits of a global framework [as a] lasting feature of student visa processing,” said chief executive Phil Honeywood.

But he said three-year visa delays were untenable. “We are definitely losing good candidates who could really add value to Australia’s research.”


Print headline: Doctoral dreams dashed as Canberra delays visas

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Reader's comments (1)

The new government has done nothing to improve the problem, which is disappointing.