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Knight Review - Strategic Review of the Student Visa Program

By Mark Webster
28 September 2011

Overview

The Knight Review was commissioned by Department of Immigration (DIAC) and Department of Education (DEEWR) in December 2010. The review was conducted by Michael Knight AO, and was commissioned to look into the student visa system and work visas post-study. The Knight Report entitled the Strategic Review of the Student Visa Program 2011 was released to government on 30 June 2011 and made a series of 41 recommendations for reform. Most of recommendations have been accepted by government in a joint DIAC/DEEWR press release dated 22 September 2011

Rather than recommend that the international education system be entirely recreated, the Knight Report recommends a number of incremental changes to improve the performance of the student visa system. The main changes which have been accepted by government are:

  • Introduction of a new "Genuine Temporary Entrant" requirement to allow greater flexibility and responsiveness in assessing student visa applications
  • Treating most students seeking to study at Australian Universities as being low risk, and significantly streamlining processing for such applicants
  • Widening work rights for all student visa holders, and allowing research students to work full time during their studies
  • Eliminating automatic and mandatory cancellation of student visas, and allowing Department of Immigration staff greater discretion in considering cancellation
  • Introduction of a new work visa for graduates of universities in Australia which may last between 2 and 4 years
Overall, the changes are most beneficial to university students, particularly those undertaking Master and PhD qualifications by research.

The changes introduce more discretion in assessing visa applications for students, moving away from a strict application of the Assessment Level System which relies only on the nationality of the visa applicant and the type of course to be studied.

Genuine Temporary Entrant Requirement

The Genuine Temporary Entrant Requirement will be introduced from November 2011 and will apply to all student visa applications lodged on or after this date.

Prospective students will still need to show they are a "genuine student" under the current assessment level system and so meet financial, English and other criteria. However, the new "Genuine Temporary Entrant" requirement will allow DIAC officers to consider the following criteria in assessing student visa applications:

  • Circumstances in the applicant's home country: for example civil unrest or compulsory military service
  • Potential circumstances in Australia: such as the applicant's knowledge of Australia, the course and educational institution
  • Immigration history of the applicant: for instance if they have a history of non-compliance
  • Value of course in applicant's future: for example whether the course is consistent with the applicant's current education level
  • Background intelligence: that is, a history of fraud or non-compliance for applicants from certain regions, educational institutions or linked to certain education agents

One of the main reasons for introduction of this requirement is to allow refusal of student visa applicants who are studying in Australia with the intention of obtaining permanent residence. This requirement introduces a significant amount of discretion and applicants may need to attend an interview.

Streamlining of Students Completing University Students

Students completing university studies in Australia, and particularly those completing Higher Degrees by Research, will enjoy streamlined visa processing from mid-2012 and a number of advantages on arrival in Australia.

In particular, such students will be treated as Assessment Level 1 applicants, regardless of their country of origin. The significance of this is that the requirements for English language ability and the amount of funds available for study would be significantly lower for a large number of applicants.

Significantly, it appears that the change will be a procedural one and the students will not officially change assessment level. This has a number of significant consequences:

  • Lower assessment level students will still need to lodge paper rather than online visa applications; and
  • The Department of Immigration will have the discretion to require applicants to provide the usual level of evidence if there are particular concerns with a student from a higher assessment level

Not all university qualifications will be eligible for streamlined processing - significantly, students completing graduate diplomas, graduate certificates and any qualification lower than a bachelor degree in Australia will be excluded. The proposed arrangements are summarised in the table below:

Eligible Qualifications Excluded Qualifications
  • Bachelor Degrees
  • Master by coursework or research
  • PhDs
  • ELICOS/Foundation courses linked to university study
  • 2+2 or 3+1 arrangements where the student studies first in a vocational course, then completes a qualification at university
  • Exchange semesters where the final qualification is awarded by an overseas institution
  • Short courses
  • Associate degrees
  • Graduate diplomas
  • Graduate certificates
  • Diplomas and advanced diplomas

In addition to streamlined processing, university students may be eligible for a work visa after completion of their studies in Australia (see below). This advantage will not apply to students completing vocational qualifications.

Higher Degree by Research (HDR)

Higher Degree by Research students are considered to be those completing a Master by Research or a PhD in Australia. HDR students will have a number of advantages over other students.

They will have 6 additional months on their student visas to undergo thesis marking. This avoids the situation where a student completes the formal part of their course and is waiting for their thesis to be marked. Under current arrangements, the student needs to apply for a further student visa to cover the period of thesis marking.

The main visa holder (ie the student undertaking research) will have full time work rights once their course commences. Dependent family members of HDR students already enjoy full work rights, but the main visa holder is restricted to 20 hours per week during semester under the current arrangements. The new work rights will be introduced in the first half of 2012.

Student Visa Cancellation

Student visas are currently subject to automatic/mandatory cancellation for:
  • Non-attendance
  • Unsatisfactory progress
  • Breaching work conditions
Currently, if an educational institution reports a student for non-attendance or unsatisfactory progress, the student must attend meeting with DIAC or face automatic cancellation of their student visa. If at the interview the student is found to be in breach, cancellation is mandatory, and there is no possibility of exercising discretion.

As a result, many students are cancelled without full review of their individual circumstances. DIAC has also had a series of issues with the method of notification of the cancellation process, resulting in many students being reinstated onto student visas after being cancelled.

The Review recommends that automatic/mandatory cancellation be abolished and DIAC officers be able to exercise discretion in deciding whether to cancel visas. These new arrangements are due to commence in the 1st half of 2012.

Post-Study Work Visa

A new post-study work visa is due to be introduced in early 2013. This visa will allow a stay of 2-4 years depending on the type of course studied in Australia. The visa is anticipated to be processed relatively quickly, as it will not require a skills assessment. The current equivalent visa, the Skilled - Graduate Subclass 485 visa is currently taking 12 months or more to be processed.

To qualify for the new work visa, the applicant must:

  • Hold a student visa granted under the new "genuine temp stay" system to be introduced in November 2011
  • Complete 2 years of study in Australia within last 6 months
  • Obtain a minimum of 6 in each of the 4 components of the IELTS test of English language ability
No skills assessment will be required, and there will be no specified skilled occupations list. However, the student must have completed a Bachelor, Master or PhD qualification in Australia. In particular, vocational education students will not be eligible for the work visa.

Visa duration will depend on the course completed in Australia. The period of validity would be:

  • 4 years: PhD students
  • 3 years: Master by Research
  • 2 years: Bachelor Degree

Conclusion

The Knight Review recommendations are highly beneficial to students completing university studies in Australia. Streamlined processing in particular should be a significant boon to international education in this sector. Australia's reputation for international education has taken a battering after the changes to General Skilled Migration in 2009-2010.

The introduction of more discretion into the visa processing and compliance areas is a positive change, and allows DIAC to be more flexible and responsive in dealing with emerging problems in the student visa caseload.

All in all, Michael Knight is to be commended on the quality of the recommendations, and the Department of Immigration and Department of Education commended for accepting so many of these for implementation.

References

DIAC page on Knight Review
Knight Review Discussion Paper
Knight Review Report
Joint government press release accepting Knight Report Recommendations

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