International students anxious as visa deadline looms

International students at the University of South Australia say they are losing sleep as they wait to be issued a letter of completion for degrees ahead of a post-graduate visa change from July.

Jun 18, 2024, updated Jun 18, 2024
International students at UniSA are anxious about getting course completion documents before a July 1 visa change deadline. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

International students at UniSA are anxious about getting course completion documents before a July 1 visa change deadline. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

A single document confirming that international students have completed their university courses is what’s required to apply for a Temporary Graduate visa – subclass 485.

On July 1, the federal government’s changes to Temporary Graduate visas come into effect which will reduce the number of years fresh international graduates can stay in Australia post-degree to just two years.

If international students want to stay in Australia for the current extension of four years, they need to apply for the visa before July 1.

That’s proving difficult for some UniSA international students, who told InDaily that administrative delays and lack of response have caused them to lose sleep and “burst into tears” over the past weeks.

In mid-May, international students who have either completed all of their course work for their last semester or will complete it in June approached UniSA administrative staff requesting that a “letter of completion” be issued quickly so they could apply for the 485 visa before July 1.

In the letter sent to UniSA Chancellor John Hill and seen by InDaily, the students said the “early receipt of our completion letter is crucial for us to adequately adapt to these changes”, and it would “facilitate a smoother transition by ensuring compliance with the new regulations, thereby safeguarding our professional and academic futures”.

The university then took action, though only for a specific cohort of graduating international students: those aged over 35.

As part of the 485 visa changes, only students aged under 35 will be able to apply for the Temporary Graduate visa from July 1. Students aged over 35 will not be able to apply for the visa at all, unless they are Hong Kong or British National Overseas passport holders who can be as old as 50.

A letter sent by the university to graduating international students said it would prioritise and release final grades for international students over 35 on June 26, but would not extend that to younger students.

The group of international students aged under 35 then requested some clarification from the university about whether they could receive their letter of completion prior to July 1.

The UniSA registrar responded that those younger students would remain eligible for the Temporary Graduate visa, and “as such we are unable to accommodate the early release of grades for all students now unable to benefit from the additional two-year extension, in the timescales required”, citing “rigorous academic and governance quality standards” as the reason for the decision.

UniSA was unable to confirm how many international students aged under 35 were finishing courses before July 1.

Since then, students told InDaily they’d been met with either no response or a generic reply to their pleas for help.

An example of the reply the students receive when requesting help was seen by InDaily, with the UniSA campus central team leader writing that it was “not possible for the University to release the grades/completion letters early for all students under 35 who are impacted by the change in legislation”.

“This decision is not taken because the University does not wish to support you and other students in your position, we strive to support the success of our students in every way we can, however the request to make special arrangements for this cohort is not possible or achievable within our academic quality standards and processes,” the letter reads.

“We apologise that this is not the outcome that you had hoped for, and wish you every success for the future.”

The students then sent a letter to InDaily detailing a “wave of anxiety and uncertainty among us”.

“The university is not only hindering our professional and personal growth but also undermining the significant investment we have made in our education,” the letter reads.

“We pay over $70,000 in tuition fees – an amount five times higher than what local students pay.

“We feel marginalised and betrayed. We came to Australia with hopes and dreams, believing that our hard work and financial sacrifices would be met with equal opportunities and support. Instead, we are faced with a discriminatory system that favours a select few, leaving the rest to fend for ourselves in an increasingly uncertain future.”

InDaily spoke with five of the impacted younger international students, who requested anonymity.

The five, who are completing courses like Bachelor of Nursing, Master of Engineering, and Master of Data Science, expressed frustration at the university and fears about their futures in Australia.

Some said they would have to return to their home countries as the two-year visa extension after July 1 would not make them attractive to Australian employers.

“People are struggling to get a job already, and with a lesser visa nobody’s going to hire us,” one student said.

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“Why are they going to spend their time on me? If I had a longer visa like five years then I could be a valuable asset to a company.”

Another said with only two years under the new July 1 485 visa, there was “no point” in looking for a job in Australia and with the deadline looming they were anxious about their future.

“I burst into tears with my loved ones and parents several times over the last two weeks, and I’m really hesitating whether staying here and working in Australia is a good decision for me,” said one Chinese student who has finished the coursework for her nursing degree.

“If we stay here working for the two years, at the end we have no further legal visa to stay and work in Australia. We have to return back to our country but we already missed the golden time to get a job in our home country because they prefer fresh graduates.

“The fresh graduate title is really important for us to work in our home country.”

In response to questions sent by InDaily, a UniSA spokesperson said it enabled the “early release of completion letters” for some students, but “the University’s systems are unable to accommodate the early release of completion letters for all students who are now unable to benefit from the additional two-year extension, as changes would be needed across many areas, which is not possible within the timeframe. These include moderation, grade release and in some cases assessment”.

“Grade moderation is an important activity to ensure student grades are reviewed prior to the final release of grades. Moderation supports quality assessment practices to ensure the design of assessment tasks relate to course objectives and professional accreditation requirements where applicable, and that assessment grading is consistent and reliable,” the spokesperson said.

“We understand students’ disappointment at the change in the government’s policy, and we have written to students in this cohort and reminded them about the university’s wellbeing services that are available to support them.”

The spokesperson said the university acknowledged the visa changes “will have an impact on the post study work rights for some international students”.

We are working with peak higher education bodies in advocating for a solution for existing students who have been impacted by this change,” they said.

In July 2023 the Government introduced a two-year extension of post-study work rights for international graduates with degrees in areas of verified skill shortage, with no end date specified. The Government is now removing the ability to apply for the two-year extension from 1 July 2024, and reducing the maximum age to apply for a Post-Higher Education Work stream visa to 35 years or under (at time of application), from under 50 years.  

“Therefore, graduates 35 years and under remain eligible to apply for the existing Temporary Graduate (Post-Study Work stream) visa. Accordingly, the University has, where it could, enabled the early release of completion letters so these graduates can apply for a Post-Study Work stream visa.”

InDaily approached both Flinders University and the University of Adelaide about their approach to the visa dilemma.

Flinders University told InDaily that it was “prioritising” international student requests for accelerated delivery of the letter of completion, while the University of Adelaide said it understood “the significance of the upcoming changes to the Temporary Graduate visa (subclass 485) Post-Study workstream and its impact”.

“Importantly, the University is communicating with affected students and is providing support where necessary through this transitional period,” a spokesperson said.

“Affected students are encouraged to seek guidance from the International Student Support services and visit the Department of Home Affairs webpage for detailed information about eligibility for other visa options.”

Ultimately, without accelerated assistance from UniSA as was granted to their peers over the age of 35, the younger students said they felt “helpless”.

“I know I’m being given unfair treatment and I cannot do anything. We are feeling helpless – that’s the most frustrating part,” a student said.

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