The Department of Home Affairs, the new “super-ministry” whose minister is Peter Dutton, has strongly rejected claims it is deliberately delaying Chinese student visas, following stories in China’s state-run media and social media that claim the issue is “politically motivated” .
The Global Times story and an article by Australian Red Scarf – a populist, patriotic Chinese-language website popular with Chinese students in Australia – claimed between 100 and 200 Chinese students have been left in limbo while they wait for visas, with some being forced to look elsewhere to study.
The stories link the delays to months of tense relations between the countries over the question of covert Chinese Communist party influence in Australia, including within Australia’s universities.
The number of Chinese students affected is unclear. Australia’s embassy in China conceded “a small number of postgraduate research students and research scholars have experienced visa delays, which is causing stress to some individuals”.
Guardian Australia understands that processing times for student visas from China, Iran and Malaysia have slowed since 2015, in part due to bureaucratic changes which introduced deeper risk assessments that involved more government departments. The delays are particularly affecting students on Chinese government-backed scholarships in sensitive science and technology fields, especially engineering.
Australia’s university sector is heavily reliant on full-fee paying international students for income, and more than 30% come from China, making any suggestion of a downturn in their numbers sensitive for the universities.
But Vicki Thomson from the Group of Eight, which represents the country’s older, research-intensive universities, said: “we have seen no increase in visa delays from our major markets and certainly no evidence of any political interference.” She added that processing delays experienced over the past two years had largely been resolved by the government.
“We will continue to monitor this issue given the absolute importance of researcher mobility to support Australia’s research and innovation sector,” she said.
The Global Times claimed a student from Jiangxi province using the pseudonym Valerie Wang had been forced to abandon her mechanical engineering PhD at UNSW after waiting more than eight months for a visa. She had a Chinese government scholarship, and was told up to 20 other prospective UNSW engineering scholars from China were facing the same delay, the newspaper reported on 12 March.
UNSW has been approached for comment.
The Australian Red Scarf article published anonymised correspondence between prospective students and Australian universities. It said students were upset about the delays because they had rejected offers from other overseas universities in favour of Australia and had not been given any timeline for resolution of their visa problem.
The authors blamed the delays on the “China threat theory” and media reports that equated Chinese students with spies.
“Those having a problem are those studying for a PhD or aster’s degree in science and engineering who have a full scholarship or are funded by the Chinese government,” the article said. “Students’ suspicions are not without reason … Some extremely irresponsible persons have repeatedly labelled overseas Chinese students as ‘spies’, accusing them of ‘stealing Australian technology’.”
The Department of Home Affairs said “claims the department is deliberately delaying Chinese student visas are incorrect”. As of 4 March, it said, 96% of Student (subclass 500) visa applications from China had been processed within six months. It said processing times are affected by “changing application volumes, complex cases and incomplete applications”.
The department said all visa applications must go through a formal process including health, character and security checks – 97% of the more than 80,000 Chinese student visa applications in 2016-17 were ultimately successful.
The latest figures available still reflect strong demand from China for an Australian education, despite ongoing concerns that tensions may discourage Chinese students from coming, or lead to retaliatory action from Beijing.
There was a 14.2% increase in visa applications from Chinese students intending to do postgraduate study in Australia for the period 1 July 2017 to 31 January 2018, compared with the same period the previous year, the Australian embassy in Beijing said.
Since 2016 UNSW has had a $100m “innovation partnership” with China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, which has earned criticism from security analysts for the perceived security risks such joint research might create, including the potential loss of sensitive technologies developed in Australia to Beijing.
The development comes as a group of 30 Australia-based China scholars condemned the tone of recent debate about Chinese influence, which they called the “racialised narrative of a vast official Chinese conspiracy”.
Led by Dr David Brophy, a Xinjiang expert from the University of Sydney, the academics submitted a letter to the parliamentary committee reviewing the proposed new espionage and foreign interference laws, arguing the laws themselves posed more of a threat to academic freedom in Australia than the Communist party.
“We situate ourselves in a strong Australian tradition of critical engagement with the Chinese political system, and it is precisely our expertise on China that leads us to be sceptical of key claims of this [bill],” they wrote. “We see no evidence, for example, that China is intent on exporting its political system to Australia, or that its actions aim at compromising our sovereignty.”
But in an indication of the heat in the debate, on social media other Australian China scholars rejected the letter, saying they were in favour of the new laws.