When PhD candidate Melody Zhao received a full scholarship to study data science in Australia she didn’t expect a year later she would still be in limbo, waiting for a visa.
But after receiving her Deakin University offer and applying for a student visa on 23 February 2022, she has had to defer her degree four times.
Zhao is among hundreds of Chinese postgraduate candidates in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields deemed a high security risk by the Department of Home Affairs and facing lengthy visa delays.
Students from Iran, India and Pakistan face similar arduous security and background checks, which academics have said are turning students in lucrative markets away from studying in Australia.
“I’m now at risk of losing the opportunity,” Zhao said. “Despite months of waiting, I was only notified once – to take a health examination on 28 February.
“I’ve reached out to enquire about my case and filed a complaint through the Department of Home Affairs, but haven’t received a response.”
Zhao is part of a WeChat group with 1,000 offshore Chinese applicants in STEM fields who have waited up to three years for visa outcomes. Many have abandoned Australia and turned to countries with more lenient visa policies to study.
Technology applicants in 63 fields ranging from transportation to environment and artificial intelligence require department approval in order to study, due to the capacity to “pose risk” to Australia’s national interest.
Prior to applying for visas, academics have to verify student applications asserting their topics are not part of a lengthy sanctions list.
“Compared to other countries … the visa processing policy seems harsh and unjust for students from our countries,” Zhao said.
“There’s no sign the department is clearing the backlog in the postgraduate research sector for offshore students, even though they granted more than 2,000 visas to onshore PhD visa applicants in November and December.
“Because of the long and unreasonable processing time, some of them are withdrawing their applications and turning to other countries where they can study much sooner.”
Zhao is applying at US universities to start in their fall semester. She has received three verbal offers which she will accept if her Australian placement, now deferred until August, lapses again.
A professor at the University of New South Wales, who wished to remain anonymous due to risk of academic repercussion, is still waiting for six Chinese PhD students to receive visas in their faculty ahead of semester one.
They said without a streamlined approach, Australia risked a drop in research standards at its most lauded universities.
“I have a student who applied before Covid and still hasn’t gotten a visa,” they said.
“None of my students have progress on their visas … you have to be extremely lucky to get one. The feedback they get from the Chinese ambassador is … if there’s going to be more than a six month wait, stop waiting. Change your offer to US, Canada, Europe.
“We lost a lot of students and we’re still losing a lot this year because they can’t wait … who is going to waste one, two years? I don’t understand why the Australian government is sabotaging the entire research community. I’m really worried about innovation in the future.”
Data released by the Department of Education found that 47,428 Chinese students arrived in Australia to start higher education studies this year, 11.3% fewer than the same time in 2021 and a 27.2% drop compared with 2019.
This data was collated prior to the Chinese government’s announcement that students should return to onshore study.
In January, China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, told the National Press Club strict government policies were having a “negative influence” on student attitudes towards studying in Australia.
He said requiring department approval for certain majors – which includes further approval for the relatively commonplace occurrence of altering PhD subjects upon arrival – was “absolutely extraordinary”.
“This is a very much not a normal kind of practice in many other countries,” Xiao said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said it understood visa application delays were causing concerns for students.
They said more than 35,000 offshore student visas were granted to Chinese nationals between 1 July 2022 and 31 January 2023 and more than 500 were for the postgraduate research sector – still the highest demographic of students.
Chinese nationals accounted for less than 1% of the offshore postgraduate research cohort who had been waiting more than two years for visa outcomes.
Vicki Thomson, a Group of Eight spokesperson, said PhD visa delays had continued to lag despite improvements in processing undergraduate applications.
“It is not acceptable for some students to be awaiting a decision, in some cases for longer than one year,” she said. “Whatever the final determination is, it should be communicated as swiftly possible.”
One in ten student visas for postgraduate research aren’t being processed within 12 months, with delays cited if applications are “complex” or incomplete. Half of visas are finalised within four months.
The Universities Australia chief executive, Catriona Jackson, said the body was in regular contact with the government pushing for faster visa processing times.
“We will continue to advocate for a transparent and smooth system that upholds integrity in our processes and supports our national security and future prosperity,” she said.