Criticism over ‘blanket’ Indian student applications ban

Education agents in India who recruit students on behalf of Australian universities say temporary regional bans by Australian universities on applicants from certain Indian states as a means to address cases of apparent visa fraud are discriminatory and are likely to deter genuine applicants.

While Australian politicians have been calling for stricter oversight by education agents involved in the visa application process, the agents themselves argue that the sector should improve vetting and transparency of the application process as part of a joint effort.

Rejection rates for Indian applicants to Australian universities have reached a 10-year high, with about 25% of applications said to be dubious, according to Australian news reports citing the Australian Department of Home Affairs. As a result, visa applications of all students from several states in Northern and Western India have been stopped since March.

Depending on the university, they include applications from the northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, and western states of Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Alison Garrod, an assistant secretary from the temporary visas branch of Australian Department of Home Affairs, told Australian media there had been “an increase in non-genuine applicants and fraud in student visa applications” since the start of 2022, driven by countries where the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 was particularly high.

According to universities and the Australian government, some people from some Indian regions are using education as a ploy to seek immigration or work in Australia.

Rajshekhar Tubachi, founder of Maven Consulting Services, with branches in Bengaluru (Bangalore) and Chennai in Tamil Nadu state, said the bans were an “undeniable obstacle” for Indian students planning to study in Australia, disrupting not only their educational plans, but also their aspirations for international exposure and development.

“We recognise the grave consequences of visa fraud and respect the universities’ decision to safeguard their interests and preserve the integrity of their international student body. However, it is unfortunate that a large number of genuine students face obstacles due to the actions of a few fraudsters,” Tubachi told University World News.

He said stricter verification processes could be implemented rather than prohibiting applications outright. This could involve more stringent checks of academic records, financial circumstances, and applicants’ intent to study, he said.

“Effectively addressing these issues can be facilitated by a collaborative effort between educational consultancies, universities, and government agencies. This partnership could seek to compile a comprehensive database of verified students in order to reduce the likelihood of fraud,” according to Tubachi.

Edith Cowan University in Western Australia banned applications from Punjab and Haryana in February this year. The following month Victoria University imposed restrictions on applications from eight Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. The University of Wollongong added a prerequisite for students hailing from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Lebanon, Mongolia, Nigeria, and some other countries, requiring them to establish that they are genuinely temporary entrants.

In May, two more Australian universities announced a ban on recruitment of Indian students from some states. Federation University in Victoria and Western Sydney University in New South Wales separately declared curbs on the admission of students from the Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, including in some cases students who had already received unconditional offers.

Modi visit to Australia

Significantly, the latest ban was announced just ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-day visit to Australia from 22 to 24 May, when the two nations, ironically, inked deals to promote migration, education and skills exchange.

In a letter to agents, the Federation University said it had observed a significant increase in the proportion of visa applications being refused from some Indian regions by the Australian Department of Home Affairs. “We hoped this would prove to be a short-term issue; however, it has persisted, and it is now clear there is a trend emerging,” the university said in a letter dated 19 May.

“It is our assessment that refusal rates from certain regions of North India are unlikely to reduce in the foreseeable future,” the university said, acknowledging that a visa rejection can significantly and negatively impact an applicant's plans to study abroad.

“We want to mitigate any potential negative consequences for an applicant,” it said.

Western Sydney University, in a letter to agents dated 8 May, said it had come to the university’s attention that “a large number of Indian students who commenced study in 2022 intakes have not remained enrolled, resulting in a significantly high attrition rate. The regions within India that have been identified as presenting the highest attrition risk are Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat”.

It said the suspension would be for the two months of May and June 2023. It added that recruitment from other regions in India continued as usual, but the university added: “We ask agents to carefully screen students, acknowledging that there are increased risk factors in the market at present.”

‘Discriminatory and unfair’

Ajit Sinha, a final-year economics student, who intended to proceed to Australia for a postgraduate course, said the ban on students from particular Indian states was discriminatory and prejudicial.

Sinha, who resides in Haryana, one of the states affected by the ban, said: “This is unfair. You cannot blacklist the students of a certain state or region like that.”

He added it was wrong to assume all the students of a particular region were not genuine. “How can they place bans on applicants from specific regions to apply to study in Australia? It is wrong,” he said.

Piyush Kumar, regional director for South Asia at IDP Education, said a few Australian Universities had temporarily stopped accepting applications from certain Indian states due to high visa refusals and “risky profiles” seen recently from these locations. While this approach was targeting non-genuine applicants, at the same time it was a challenge for genuine students from these regions, he said.

Kumar said Australian universities should “ideally follow stricter checks and assessments for students from the regions that they consider high risk”, rather than impose a blanket ban.

Kumar added universities needed to have a balanced approach and could “stretch” the evaluations process to ensure quality.

He said it was crucial to educate students about the severe consequences of fraudulent practices. Agents must
advise students on the significance of candour and openness in their applications, as well as the potential legal consequences of misrepresentation, he added.

Tubachi said: “We urge universities to provide more specific details regarding the instances of fraud they have encountered. This transparency will assist agents in gaining a deeper understanding of the situation and developing more targeted strategies to prevent future occurrences.

“We are committed to collaborating closely with universities and students in order to overcome these obstacles and identify viable alternatives for our students. The ultimate objective is to ensure that every deserving student has an equal opportunity to study abroad,” he added.

High influx of Indian students

Australia is reportedly on course to enrol the highest number of Indian students ever, surpassing the previous high of 75,000 in 2019.

The boom in applications from South Asia began after the previous Australian government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison in January 2022 lifted a 20-hour weekly limit on the hours of work students could perform while in the country on a student visa.

With no restrictions on how many hours students could work, the authorities reported a boom in foreign students applying to cheaper universities and vocational colleges. A limit on the number of working hours permitted for students will be reintroduced on 1 July, set at a maximum of 24 hours a week.