China says postgrad student visa delays are ‘political’

China has criticised Australia for what it perceives as ‘politically motivated’ visa delays for postgraduate students hoping to take up doctoral studies at Australian universities. Although Chinese nationals are not the only nationality to face such delays, the complaints come at a time of heightened tensions between the two countries over Australia’s espionage and foreign interference bill.

The bill is seen in Beijing as targeting China after revelations of alleged Chinese donations to political figures, and claims of Chinese Communist Party activities on Australian university campuses.

According to an article last week in China’s Global Times – run by the Party newspaper People’s Daily – dozens of Chinese PhD applicants and visiting scholars with offers from Australian universities have been waiting for their visas for over half a year, “an abnormally long period”.

More than 100 Chinese nationals awaiting visas to Australia are PhD candidates with funding from the China Scholarship Council under China’s Ministry of Education, and Australian university scholarships, as well as visiting scholars, spanning over 10 universities, according to the report. They are mostly applicants in science or engineering in fields such as robotics, chemistry or mechanical engineering.

However, Australia’s Department of Home Affairs has sought to diffuse political tensions. A department spokeswoman said the delays “are not specific to Chinese nationals", adding that such vetting is not new.

According to Australia’s Department of Home Affairs, the student visa grant rate for Chinese postgraduate applications is 99%, higher than the 98% grant rate across the postgraduate sector generally.

In 2016-17 some 10,826 applications were lodged for postgraduate research from all nationalities, of which 98.2% were granted. Just over 300 were turned down, although no reasons were given, according to figures from the Department of Home Affairs.

Australian universities said visa delays have also been faced by students from other countries, including India, Vietnam, Iran and Malaysia, in part due to stepped up security screening for visas conducted by Australia’s intelligence agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

Vetting relates to military-sensitive research areas and student ties to government agencies back home, in particular in ‘sensitive’ countries such as Iran. Intelligence information is often shared with other agencies such as the United Kingdom’s Academic Technology Approval Scheme run by the Foreign Office, which conducts similar vetting of postgraduate students from non-European Union countries in certain scientific disciplines.

In 2016 Indian officials highlighted the case of a highly qualified doctoral student refused an Australian visa to take up a scholarship award at the University of Melbourne ostensibly because of fears his work could be associated with ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

The denial caused anger in India for being lumped with ‘rogue nations’ by the Australian security vetting system. It later emerged there had been several visa denials to Indian students.

China Scholarship Council advice

The Australian Department of Home Affairs and the Australian embassy in Beijing have been in contact with the China Scholarship Council (CSC) regarding some 40 cases of scholars facing delays, which mainly relate to security checks carried out on all postgraduate visa applicants – currently 400 applications in total.

CSC recently posted a notice on its official website saying, "Because of adjustments in Australia's visa policies, a few applicants have been experiencing trouble in their application process with long security checks and the Australian side could not provide explanation."

CSC has said applicants with scholarship offers can apply to the agency for an extension to their offer, which is normally limited to a few months, while applicants await their visas, or they can “switch to another country”.

According to the Australian Home Affairs Department website, 90% of visa applications for postgraduate research are usually processed within 74 days. But Global Times accused Australia of not being transparent in its procedures.

Global Times quoted a student going only by the name ‘Wang’ who has apparently waited eight months – more than three times as long. "I thought my visa would be ready within four months. I never imagined it would not come," Wang was quoted as saying.

"A group of approximately 20 applicants to UNSW [the University of New South Wales] has been waiting for an outcome on their visas for longer than six months, and most of these are from the engineering department," the newspaper said.

A university spokesperson told University World News: “UNSW is working with Home Affairs on the issue and we encourage overseas students to make their applications early.”