By Neena Bhandari
Sydney, Jan 12 2023 – When Megha Jacob, who had been applying for a doctoral degree at various overseas universities, received an offer from the Australian National University’s Department of Chemistry to do a fully funded PhD, she was thrilled and immediately accepted the position.
It was January 2022. She submitted her visa application and resigned from her job at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. One year later, she is still waiting for her visa to be processed.
Several international Indian students enrolled in doctoral degree courses in Australia’s leading universities have been waiting for their visas to be approved for months, some for up to two years. “The protracted delays have put our lives on hold. We seek clarity and a definitive timeline so we can plan our future,” say students from one of the WhatsApp groups formed by Indian doctoral students facing Australian visa processing delays.
Since the easing of Australia’s stringent COVID-19 restrictions, these students allege, the visa processing time for doctoral degree students has increased. “The median processing time for offshore student visa application was 18 days for the Postgraduate Research Sector in November 2022,” an Australian Department of Home Affairs (DHA) spokesperson tells IPS. However, the most recent processing time on the DHA website for 500 – Student visa (subclass 500) Postgraduate Research Sector shows 90 percent of applications are processed in 10 months.
Processing times will take some time to improve as the department works through older applications in the backlog, according to DHA. Processing times can vary due to applicants’ circumstances, including how long it takes to perform required checks on the supporting information provided by the applicant; and how long it takes to receive information from external agencies. This particularly relates to health, character and national security requirements.
Jacob says, “I have been submitting additional information, such as published research papers, but the last updated date on my visa application page on the DHA portal is still nine months old! I wonder if there is a technical glitch in the system or has my application fallen through the cracks.”
“When I called the DHA last month, I was told that waiting time for 90 percent of applicants is nine months [now its 10 months], and for the remaining 10 percent of applicants, we do not know how long it’s going to take. Presumably, some of us are in that 10 percent. But we don’t know why and what has placed our application in that category,” she adds.
Many students in the WhatsApp group have individually reached out to the DHA through email, the complaints section or via phone, but they have received only generic responses. “I have even written to the Commonwealth Ombudsman and received a similar reply that they are conducting necessary background checks, which can take several months,” says Deepak Chahal, who has a master’s from the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology in Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala).
Chahal, who enrolled as a doctoral student in Macquarie University’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics in December 2020, has been waiting for the past two years for his visa to be processed. He says, “I had begun working remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions, but I can’t continue remotely anymore as I need access to Australian observatories to collect data and the lab to analyse it. I’ve already spent two years doing the research, so abandoning it now is not an option.”
For students in the field of applied science, technology and engineering, working remotely is not an option as they require access to a host of resources –laboratory, equipment, data, fast internet connectivity, and availability of supervisors to oversee their experiments.
“We are losing precious research time as we don’t even know if our visa application will be successful after all this waiting. Our lives are hanging in the balance,” says a 26-year-old applicant from Mumbai (Maharashtra), enrolled in The University of Sydney’s School of Chemistry, who requested anonymity. He applied for his visa in August 2022, as his date of joining was October 1. [Students can submit their application no later than six weeks before their course starts and no earlier than 12 weeks.] He has had to defer his research until his visa application is finalised.
Indian High Commissioner to Australia, Manpreet Vohra, tells IPS, “Many Indian doctorate students with admissions secured at various Australian universities have indeed been waiting for a very long time for their visas to be issued. This has delayed their research and, in some cases, has also jeopardised the grants that have been assured to them. We have been raising this matter regularly with Australian authorities and have urged them for early redressal of the difficulties that the doctorate students are facing.”
The DHA data shows that the higher education sector visa grant rate for 2022-2023 was 76.5 percent to November 30, 2022.
One beacon of hope, these students say, has been the support from Australian universities and the faculty. Dr Clement Canonne, Lecturer at the University of Sydney’s School of Computer Science, recently Tweeted on his personal account: “My hope for 2023 is not to have to raise the PhD and Postgraduate Research #AustralianVisas processing delays issue anymore, and to see not only the current backlog processed, but also increased transparency & communication from @ausgov for applicants.”
There were 1608 Indian nationals enrolled in Doctoral Degree courses out of the 96,005 Indian international students enrolled across all education sectors as of the year-to-date October 2022, according to a spokesperson for the Australian Government’s Department of Education. International students from India across all education sectors contributed $3.729 billion to the Australian economy in the 2021-22 financial year.
Speaking in his personal capacity and not expressing an official university viewpoint, Canonne tells IPS, “Students from India’s premier STEM institutes have many other options. When they, and Chinese and European students, choose to come to work with us, it’s because the research aligns. It’s really disheartening when these exceptional students are accepted, we work hard to apply for funding and get the grant, but then we can’t use the money to do the research for which it is meant because the students’ visa applications are pending for months, even years.”
The Department of Education data shows that in 2019, internationals accounted for 61 percent of Higher Degree Research students in engineering and related technologies and 57 percent in Information Technology.
“We chose Australia because it was a “perfect fit” when it came to the high ranking of Australian universities, professors in our field of research, lab facilities and other resources, full scholarship and shorter duration to complete a PhD in 3.5 years as against five years in most other countries,” says Parkarsh Kumar from Ranchi (Jharkhand), who is enrolled in UNSW Sydney’s Department of Material Science.
He says, “I completed my master’s degree from National Taiwan University on a scholarship and had two job offers, which I declined because I wanted to do a PhD and one day become a professor in an Indian institution. I was a role model in our family and community, but now everyone jokes that don’t be like him because I am sitting at home since January 2022 waiting for my visa application to be processed.”
Many of these students had left their jobs to pursue research, some against the wishes of their parents and elders. The long visa processing delays have caused them mental and financial stress. “If I apply for a job, I am asked why have I not worked for the past 10 months. If I say it’s because I am waiting for my Australian student visa, they immediately reject, stating that then there is no certainty on how long you will work for us,” says Jacob, who has socially isolated herself because while her family is very supportive, the societal pressure of being constantly asked, “When are you going to Australia?” is too much for her.
The long visa delay is prompting some to apply for a PhD in other countries or get a job. The Group of Eight (Go8), representing Australia’s leading research-intensive universities, in its submission dated December 16, 2022, to Australia’s 2023-24 Permanent Migration Program inquiry, noted that “visa backlogs are not just about the number of applicants in the queue, but about the critical expertise that Australia is missing out on, or stands to lose, because of avoidable processing delays.” It urged the DHA “to consider ways to improve and streamline visa assessment processes to facilitate migration in areas of priority or strategic need.”
IPS UN Bureau Report