Week in Review

High-risk student visa applications cause delays

Ongoing delays in student visa processing centre on a rise of high-risk applications from overseas, particularly India. Laura Walters reports.

A rise in the number of high-risk student visa applications, particularly from India, are at the core of lengthy delays in student visa processing.

In recent months, vocational education providers have been vocal about their frustration over Immigration NZ's delays.

Those in the Institute of Technology and Polytech (ITP) sector have said they expect the delays to cost at least $33.4 million, while Education New Zealand has warned the uncertainty in the market is impacting on the country’s attractiveness and has the potential to cause reputational damage.

Documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act show the delays are due to more than just the high number of overseas student visa applications.

An aide memoire from April, prepared for Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway for a meeting with Education Minister Chris Hipkins, shows it's the makeup of the applications which is causing the hold-up.

The majority of offshore student visa applications received by Immigration NZ since November last year have been high risk.

Since November 2018, only 16 percent of the 3800 visa offshore student applications were deemed to be low risk. The uptick in the number of high-risk cases began after the Government announced its tightening of post-study work rights.

Some education providers continued to focus on quantity over quality...by promoting low-level courses in non-skill shortage areas and in higher risk markets.

This assessment was made based on certain risk factors, including the potential for fraudulent documentation, future exploitation, and insufficient documentation to meet immigration instructions.

With the number of confirmed cases of fraudulent visa applications on the rise - up 88 percent last year - officials were scrutinising applications through phone interviews, independent verification of the documentation, and third-party checks, including security checks.

This level of assessment had slowed down the process, especially for polytechnics and private training establishments (PTEs), which Immigration NZ said continued to recruit students from high-risk areas.

On April 3 when the briefing was prepared, Immigration NZ was processing 6988 student visa applications, with 91 percent deemed medium or high risk.

Since November last year, only five percent of all offshore student visa applications for ITPs and seven percent for PTEs were considered low risk.

In comparison, 54 percent of ITP applications are considered high risk and 37 percent for PTEs.

There had been a general improvement of the quality of applicants, particularly from India, since 2016, immigration NZ officials said in the briefing.

 However, some education providers, particularly in the PTE sub-sector, continued to focus on quantity over quality.

They did this by promoting low-level courses in non-skill shortage areas and in higher risk markets. PTEs and ITPs also carried out minimal vetting of prospective students, the briefing paper said.

Previous issues with student visa applications from northern Indian states meant all applications from these areas were triaged as 'high-risk'. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

In the briefing paper, Immigration New Zealand specifically singled out the northern states of India as being a high-risk market.

“INZ has been very open with international education stakeholders over a number of years regarding the risk indicators evident in applications from northern Indian states, however, many ITPs and PTEs continue to focus their recruitment efforts in these states."

In 2018, 47 percent of ITP applications and 62 percent of PTE applications came from one of these states, compared with just 14 percent of university applications.

Of the applications being processed by the Mumbai office on April 3, 76 percent were deemed high risk (a total of 2773) and 22 percent medium risk.

Immigration NZ assistant general manager Jeannie Melville said the increase in high-risk student visa applications began following the changes to post-study work rights.

There were a range of reasons why there may have been an increase, but Melville said any change to settings was likely to impact the different markets.

There had been a significant increase in the number of student visa applications from India in recent years - up 65 percent last year.

All applications coming out of the northern states were deemed to be high risk due to past behaviours the government agency had detected, she said.

Some examples of fraudulent activities included a number of people using the same bank statements but changing the name, or banks lending cash to one person and that being transferred to another account in order to meet funds requirements as part of a so-called "money-go-round".

In some cases, applicants would have a "recognition of prior learning" which immigration officers may suspect was not genuine.

This meant it was important to closely assess the applications from this part of the world in order  to strike a balance between facilitating migration and protecting both the student and New Zealand from the impacts of fraudulent activity.

Impact on vocational training sector

The high proportion of high-risk applications had slowed the process, having a significant impact on the ITP and PTE sectors.

In the four months to March 2019, the number of ITP visa decisions made by immigration NZ reduced by 263, or seven percent, when comparing the same period the previous year. The number of approved visas over the same period also reduced - down 288, or 10 percent.

PTE visa decisions reduced by 752, or 12 percent, in those four months, compared to the same period the previous year, while the number of approved visas reduced by 718, or 14 percent.

Immigration NZ said the delay and visa denials had forced some education providers to delay programme start dates. in some cases, programmes were cancelled due to insufficient international student numbers.

The fewer than expected international students had led to significant financial losses, which had an impact on staffing and resources.

Melville said Immigration NZ was not the sole mitigator of risk. Education providers also had to consider who they were recruiting and what types of students they were targeting.

Some providers were working with as many as 100 agents just from the Indian subcontinent, which made it hard to build trusting relationships.

Immigration NZ was working closely with education providers, Education NZ, and others in the sector in order to share the burden of mitigating risks, she said.

Meanwhile, the number of staff had been increased in order to deal with the growing demand. The Mumbai office had gone from 12 staff to 40 in May, with a further 20 immigration officers lined up.

"It's incumbent on all of us to make sure the system works well," Melville said, adding it was important to bring in high-quality students who would not end up being exploited.

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