Visa integrity: the hunt for ‘genuine’ students

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Visa integrity: the hunt for ‘genuine’ students


The UK Home Office kicked off 2024 with a comms campaign stating they are “fully committed to seeing a decisive cut in migration” with slogans such as “stop the boats” being used alongside reminders that changes to student dependant rules are “now in force”.

Any suggestion to an immigration officer that a prospective student would like to stay beyond that temporary status are often met with suspicion and rejection

Immigration fear is once again a central theme for a national election but this time students are being dragged into the political fray.

British prime minister Rishi Sunak took the unprecedented step of personally tweeting that the government is “delivering for the British people” by preventing the majority of international students from bringing their family members to the UK, as visa changes came into force on 1 January.

Cue national debate about what constitutes a ‘genuine’ student, why a student would want to bring loved ones with them to a study destination and what is a legitimate edu-immigration pathway?

But the UK is not alone in this debate. 2024 will be the year of enforcing student visa integrity in other destinations too.

In Canada, the latest figures revealed that between January 2022 and April 2023 the national Immigration Department only approved just over half (54.3%) of the study permit applicants that had already been accepted by a school.

Immigration minister Marc Miller has gone as far as comparing the education system in Canada to a “puppy mill” with the student visa department being overloaded with poor quality applications.

The number of study permit holders in Canada has tripled in the last decade with a sharp increase in the last few years as the country has garnered a reputation for being an ‘open’ edu-immigration pathway.

Miller stated the system has “lost its integrity” with some public colleges having a visa approval rate of less than 50% of the applicants who had been accepted onto courses.

In Australia, The PIE recently reported on proposed reforms to the student visa process and the current Genuine Temporary Entrant assessment.

The validity of the GTE was called into question due to the widespread availability of coaching and copy templates online from both agents and institutions alike, meaning that students could ‘game’ the test in order to pass.

Legitimate students were being penalised for being honest about their true motivations to study in Australia including long term career and residency goals.

Speaking at The PIE Live Australia in 2023, Sonya Singh, CEO of SIEC, an education agency that supports students from India to study abroad, explained the conundrum students have been facing when completing the GTE.

“On one hand it is considered a crime to talk about migration outcomes” said Singh. “On the other hand, there is this expectation that a student provides a perfect statement of purpose.”

The irony is that for the vast majority of study permit applications, perfectly eligible students have to hide their true intentions in order to be classed as ‘genuine’ to be approved.

What constitutes a ‘genuine’ student?

Immigration is clearly being framed as a threat to society and a pressure on domestic services.

But is it possible to divorce international education from immigration in a globalised world?

If so, there seems to be a fundamental flaw in the way all these countries have been promoting higher education.

Heightened promises of training work-ready graduates, access to industry placements and global careers have been underwritten by graduate visa routes designed to kick-start that career in a chosen study destination.

Yet despite these promises international students are still classified as temporary entrants in a very literal way.

Any suggestion to an immigration officer that a prospective student would like to stay beyond that temporary status are often met with suspicion and rejection.

Without more coherent policy about what these nations want from international graduates other than income, it seems impossible to determine what a ‘genuine’ student is on the way in.

As 2024 unfolds we will know more about what ‘visa integrity’ looks like.

An attempt to close backdoor immigration could close the front door to legitimate students – and a hunt for quality could be drawn into a witch-hunt against immigration.

Are you seeing higher visa rejection rates for students? Are visa decisions justified or do you feel students are being affected by heightened immigration controls? Have your say in the comments below or by emailing [email protected]

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