Australia is one of the most popular study abroad destinations for Indian students. According to the data provided by the government, at least 1.09 lakh Indian students were studying in Australia in 2022. The number has been steadily increasing since 2019 when it was 73808, which decreased to 33629 in 2020 and 8950 in 2021 (due to the Covid pandemic).
However, the recent decisions of the Australian government to tighten the visa rules and make English language tests stringent among others have made Indian students apprehensive.
What are the recent changes?
The Australian government has decided to increase the minimum English language requirements for student and graduate visas. This means that the minimum score required for English proficiency tests such as IELTS, TOEFL and DuoLingo will now be increased. As per the revised rules, from early 2024, the test score required for a Temporary Graduate visa will increase from an IELTS score of 6.0 to 6.5, for a student visa, it will increase from IELTS (or equivalent) 5.5 to 6.0.
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Additionally, the government will introduce a new Genuine Student test for all international students, which will incentivise applications from genuine students and discourage non-genuine students, whose primary intention is to work rather than study, from accessing Australia’s international education system. This test will replace the existing Genuine Temporary Entrant requirement to acknowledge that post-study temporary migration (and beyond) pathways are available for those who may be eligible. At the same time, the new Genuine Student test will make it clear that the vast majority of international students in Australia will return home.
Also, the government has decided to apply additional scrutiny to high-risk student applications and crack down on unscrupulous education providers.
To close all loopholes, the Australian government has also increased the amount of savings international students will need to be eligible for a student visa. This requirement has not been indexed since 2019 and should reflect higher living expenses. Applicants now need to show evidence of $24,505 in savings, which is a 17 per cent increase on previous levels.
What do Indian students mean for Australia?
International students contribute $30 billion to the Australian economy per annum and are the country’s fourth largest export. Even though the Australian universities have not reached back to their pre-pandemic level, the varsities have welcomed a good percentage of international students in the past year.
Macquarie University currently has 45,000 students of which about 10,000 students are international students from over 80 countries. South Asia is the fastest-growing region for the varsity. Similarly, Deakin University received between 20,000–25,000 applications from Indian students in the past year. Even in 2019, the University of Wollongong had a total student enrolment of 36,038 students of which 8,745 were international students.
While it is a popular study abroad destination, the recent change in study visa requirements may pose a challenge for Indian students.
Experts believe that even though it is important to align education to outcomes, “in the short run, it is likely to ruffle feathers, more with Australian universities who will fall short of their enrolment targets and hence might go into losses, than the students who have an open environment to go across the world today,” said Akshay Chaturvedi, CEO of Leverage Edu, a study abroad consultant company.
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Experts also believe that with the present housing crisis and job market saturation, the Australian government is overhauling some processes to achieve a balance, but having a strict change in policies every 2-3 years can create an unwelcoming environment for international students.
“We believe governments must take into account projections for the next 5-10 years while regulating policies. This will enable all stakeholders with information to process and account for while planning the way forward,” said Saurabh Arora.
Quality students = better labour market
This decision has been taken as the Australian government believes that only genuine students should get the chance to transition into the labour market after the completion of their Australian degree.
“There is a mismatch between the qualifications of international graduates and the work they are doing. More than 50 per cent of graduate visa holders with a bachelor’s degree or higher are working significantly below their skill level. This is particularly true for engineering and IT graduates, despite them studying in areas tied to skills shortages,” the Migration Strategy report stated.
This decision has been appreciated by Australian universities as they believe “this will not only improve the quality of students seeking to study in Australia but also help in ensuring that international students can succeed academically in their chosen programme, make local friends and contacts, and have an overall positive experience,” said Abizer Merchant, director (India & Sri Lanka) of Macquarie University, Australia.
Some Australian universities also think that these “rules will ensure that only genuine applications from quality students will go forward to facilitate their global academic and professional aspirations,” said Ravneet Pawha, Vice President (Global Alliances) and CEO, Deakin University South Asia.
Further, universities believe that this decision was essential to ensure the migration system can be brought back to its original work model. “Australia needs a migration system that meets the needs of our country to ensure that we get the skills we need while also making sure the system is working in the interests of Australians and international students who contribute a lot to our country’s success story,” said Professor Tony Travaglione, pro VC for Global Strategy at the University of Wollongong.
Genuine students only
While this is being hailed as a good decision by Australian universities, some students and experts are apprehensive that it can crumple the dreams of those who belong to small Indian cities.
As per the report, international students and graduates make up the largest share of ‘permanently temporary’ migrants, with 1.08 lakh having lived in Australia for five or more years. Many former students can extend their stay and become even more ‘permanently temporary’ by shifting on to another student visa while onshore or by shifting back to another student visa from a graduate visa.
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Migration Review found that temporary migrants, including students, face a greater risk of workplace exploitation in the labour market. A 2020 study found that ‘underpayment of international students’ was systemic and widespread. Nearly 49 per cent were paid below the basic statutory minimum wage, and over three quarters, 77 per cent were paid below the minimum casual hourly wage.
People who dream of settling in Australia but are from smaller regions of the country and are not very fluent in the English language fear that this can harm their dreams. “I come from a small village in Punjab and settling in Australia was my dream. Even though I can speak normal spoken English, I am not confident that I will get a high score. My agent had told me that earlier I could do a bridge course but now they are not sure because the rules are stricter. I might have to look for other places,” said a 19-year-old from Ludhiana.
“What if I get scared due to this immense pressure and end up missing the mark? How will they test my genuineness by one extra point,” added his friend.
Some students who are already living in Australia are also worried that they will have to re-appear for IELTS/ TOEFL, especially since they scored just enough at the time of their admission. “I received all of my education in my mother tongue Marathi. I could speak English to some extent. I was aware that I would need to work on my language skills when I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Australia. I put a lot of study into my IELTS preparation, and I was able to get a 6.5 band. I was accepted to USYD, but because of these recent changes, I will need to retake the IELTS once I graduate. Despite my improved English, I don’t see the need to do this. I have been living and working here for nearly a year now, and I have not encountered any language obstacle,” said a Masters in Architecture student who went to Australia in February 2023.
The Review also found that lower English proficiency may make migrants more vulnerable to exploitation. Currently, the English language requirements for Australian visas are below those of some comparable countries, such as Canada. With this in mind, the Migration Review recommended aligning ‘the English language requirements of the Student and/or Graduate visas with skilled visa English language requirements.
However, some experts believe that the new policy fails to justify its primary aim. While the government claims that the changes have been brought to ensure that incoming students are trained to survive in Australia, experts argue that students are being judged on intent instead of talent.
“For now, the ‘new’ Genuine Student Test replaces an already flawed Genuine Temporary Entrant requirement, focusing on testing intent versus not skill, which doesn’t connect back to this change’s core need. I would urge the government to reconsider its current decision, welcome inputs from across segments, and bring together a more sustainable long-term policy which helps Australia win over the next decade,” said Chaturvedi.
Meanwhile, Australian universities such as the University of Wollongong and the Deakin University are now opening a campus in India. However, students are not sure if it will be able to cater to the level of quality and cultural experiences that they would get if they travel abroad.
“The decision to study at a local campus or abroad depends on various factors such as the specific course offerings, affordability, career goals, and personal preferences. Indian students should weigh the pros and cons of studying in Australia versus opting for a local campus, taking into account factors like the quality of education, exposure to a different culture and lifestyle, and potential career opportunities after graduation,” Piyush Kumar, Regional Director (South Asia and Mauritius), IDP Education told indianexpress.com.