NEW rules for deciding whether or not to grant a student visa are subjective, unpredictable and vulnerable to any prejudices of local staff in Australia's offshore missions, commentators say.Sydney immigration lawyer David Bitel said the new "genuine temporary entrant" test gave "total discretion based on subjective criteria to case officers".
"There is a belief among minority groups (such as Muslims in India or Hindus in Bangladesh) that processing officers can use their prejudice to deny visas."
In line with the Knight visa reforms, the government has applied the GTE test since November last year to discourage those whose real purpose is suspected to be work or migration, rather than study.
It can be held against applicants if their home country offers a similar, cheaper course and the career benefits of study in Australia appear dubious to immigration case officers in overseas missions.
Stephen Nagle, director of the private provider Holmes Institute, said the GTE test had to be reworked.
"We need objective criteria to be fair to students, institutions and officials," he said.
"This new GTE system is not working."
He said the fact that source countries for Australia offered similar courses should not be relevant.
"We are encouraging the student not to stay at home," he said.
"Our motive is export education -- to promote the superiority of our course over the course offered overseas."
After complaints, especially from private providers and English colleges, the office of immigration minister Chris Bowen recently promised "more intensive training of case officers on the application of the GTE criteria".
Mr Bowen's office conceded that the GTE had been applied "fairly firmly" in the case of one offshore refusal brought to its attention.
"We would generally not rely on the availability of a course in the applicant's home country as sufficient grounds, in itself, for the refusal of a visa."
Sydney education agent Amit Bhatt, who recruits chiefly in the Indian states of Gujarat and Punjab, said students wanting to take vocational education and training courses with Australia's private providers were suffering an almost 100 per cent rejection rate.
The June 2011 Knight report argued it made more sense for Australia to export VET delivery, rather than bring in students, and ensuing visa reforms have favoured universities.
Mr Bhatt said students seeking a visa for "big name" universities still had a good chance of success, unlike those wanting to take a bachelor's or a master's degree at a private provider.
He said he had already reduced his staff in India from six to five because of the effect of the new student visa test.
Phil Honeywood, executive director of the International Education Association of Australia, said the immigration department was working on the problem.
"The key has to be the extent to which supervisors of locally employed staff administering the GTE are checking and auditing the (rejection of) student visa applications," he said.
"We've been assured that in some (overseas) posts they're moving towards 100 per cent checking of visa refusals."
Sources told the HES of cases in which local staff had refused visas for the child of a local wealthy family, apparently out of envy, and knocked back applicants from religions not their own.
A spokeswoman for the department said quality assurance checks by senior staff had found "no evidence" of such prejudice.
"As part of our strategy for introducing a range of Knight review recommendations, all student visa processing areas -- both in Australia and overseas -- increased their quality assurance checking," she said.
She said the department was expert in applying the GTE test, which was also used for tourist visas.
The HES has seen visa refusals by immigration officers in overseas posts with Anglo-Celtic names who, like local staff, drew an adverse inference from the failure of an applicant to check out cheaper study options at home.
Peak bodies such as the Australian Council for Private Education and Training have been documenting student visa refusals that seem unreasonable.
The sector has asked for data that would allow analysis of the effect of the new GTE test on refusal rates for each of the student visa sub-classes and overseas posts.
Sector sources said the department had suggested its database would not allow such an analysis.
However, a spokeswoman for the department said it had the wherewithal to "assess the impact of new policy on any visa subclass in any location".
Mr Bitel said it was very difficult to predict the outcome of a student visa application with the GTE test.
"Two like applications, one is approved, one is refused, with no ability to discern the difference, other than how a particular case officer felt on the day," he said.
"If they (the authorities) don't want students to come to Australia, then they should be more public about that."
He said he was still meeting overseas students who had chosen Australia in the expectation that a qualification here would lead to migration.
Told the rules had changed, they protested they would not have come here, he said.
"There needs to be some pretty strong disclaimers to overseas students that the residency option is pretty much closed," he said.
The GTE test was one among many elements of a policy shift making it much harder to parlay an Australian qualification into a skilled migration visa.
Other commentators say this shift is well understood offshore and student hopes now fix on the post-study work rights that follow university study.
Applying the GTE test, immigration officials are told to take into account factors such as:
"Whether the applicant has sound reasons for not undertaking the study in the home country or region if a similar course is already available there. Decision makers should allow for any reasonable motives as established by the applicant.
"(Another factor is the) relevance of the course to the student's past or proposed future employment either in their home country or a third country."
Mr Nagle said: "All foreign qualifications are relevant to the student's employment.
"That's why people travel overseas to study -- because employers all over the world value language skills and work experience in foreign countries."
Read the full story here.http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/student-visa-test-open-to-abuse/story-e6frgcjx-1226497165023