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‘I’m helpless’: PhD applicants’ plans torpedoed by Australia visa processing delays

PHD applicants
Lengthy student visa processing is keeping PhD applicants on tenterhooks. Source: Saeed Khan/AFP

Australia’s borders reopened to fully vaccinated visa holders on Dec. 15, 2021 after nearly two years of COVID-related closures. Many PhD applicants, however, are still on the edge as they wait months or years for their Australian student visas which is causing them “excruciating hardships”.

A visa applicant who only wants to be identified as S. Taheri told Study International that she applied for her student visa over six months ago.

The Iranian received an offer to pursue a PhD in chemistry at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and was awarded a Tuition Fee Scholarship (TFS) for Term 1, 2022, which covered her tuition fees for the duration of her studies. The living fees were also covered by her supervisor.

She is a member of multiple Telegram groups with members who are mostly Iranian students who seek admission to Australian universities.

“People generally share their visa grant information in these groups, and interestingly, very few PhD applicants with scholarships from Australian universities or the government reported visa grants after the Australian borders reopened,” Taheri claimed.

“I am friends with a considerable number of these people, and I am aware of their excruciating hardships caused by delays in their visa applications to a large extent.” 

Wellbeing of PhD applicants deteriorating  

Some students are reportedly facing stress-related diseases due to visa uncertainties, including autoimmune diseases, acute stress disorder (ASD), extreme weight loss and anorexia. 

Others have become distant from family members and friends to avoid the continuous reminder of not having a visa and becoming socially isolated.

Many of these student visa applicants have studied in top universities in Iran. 

“In other words, they are talented people who only wish to study and progress in their field of research in the beautiful, calm, and developed country of Australia with its kind and welcoming people. They are asking for their voices to be heard on social media using the hashtag #we_are_academics,” said Taheri.

phd applicants

Lengthy student visa processing is keeping Iranian students on tenterhooks. Source: Supplied

She plans to travel to Australia with her family as soon as their visa is granted. The delays in getting her Australian student visa have meant that she and her husband were forced to reject many promising career opportunities with good salaries. 

Her son’s education is also in jeopardy.

“Moreover, after receiving my scholarship, I spoke with the Temporary Residents Programme and obtained the Confirmation of Placement in a New South Wales government school for my son,” said Taheri. 

She was planning on enrolling her son in primary school in NSW from February 2022 but is uncertain whether to let him enrol in an Iranian school or wait for her visa so he could study in Australia. 

These issues are not unique to Taheri as many other Australian student visa applicants are in a similar predicament, many of whom are reportedly waiting for more than six months for their visas.

“All of my Iranian friends who have reached out to the Department of Home Affairs through email, complaints section, or phone call received unsatisfactory and generic responses that invited them to be more patient,” she said.

Opportunities evaporate for many PhD applicants 

Tanushree JB Nath is another PhD applicant who has been affected by visa processing delays. 

“After getting a full scholarship offer from UNSW, I was very much looking forward to starting my research towards renewable energy. However, I never expected a delay of nearly 16 months which is almost half the time of my entire PhD duration,” she told Study International.

The Indian national applied for her postgraduate research sector student visa (subclass 500) on Jan. 13, 2021 and has been waiting since then. 

“The application procedure was very smooth which is why I never expected this delay. I have deferred my term multiple times until now and if I cannot enrol before May 30, 2022, I’ll lose my hard-earned scholarship as well as a place at the university. All these months of waiting will go in vain. I’m helpless,” she said.

As a PhD student, Nath cannot enrol without a valid visa.

“My university has tried to contact the DHA but to no avail,” she claimed. “My university, as well as my supervisor, have been very supportive until now with my deferrals due to the visa delay but even they have limitations and cannot wait for a student for nearly two years to enrol. I’m out of options currently and always hoping for my visa grant.”

phd applicants

Visa processing delays are putting many PhD applicants in limbo. Source: Saeed Khan/AFP

The DHA’s website notes that 90% of visa applications for student visa subclass 500 (Postgraduate Research Sector) are processed in eight months and that student visa processing has continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Student visa applications from applicants outside Australia are being prioritised to allow new students to enter Australia and commence their course. As such, processing times for this cohort are faster. In March 2022, 90% of applications where the client is outside Australia were finalised in 74 days,” it said.

A DHA spokesperson previously told Study International that the department has focussed effort on processing student visa applications lodged offshore to support Semester 1 commencements in 2022 since borders reopened to fully vaccinated student visa holders on Dec. 15, 2021.

“Student visa processing has continued throughout the pandemic with almost 258,000 student visa applications finalised in the 2020-21 programme year, and more than 200,000 applications finalised between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022,” said the spokesperson. 

The spokesperson added: “The time it takes to process a student visa is dependent on a range of factors, including the personal circumstances of the applicant. A visa cannot be granted until the department is satisfied all requirements have been met.”