An unknown number of prospective University of Wollongong students have had their offers of enrolment withdrawn due to delays in visa processing.
International education expert Dirk Mulder shared a withdrawal notice via his website, The Koala, which covers news in international higher education.
The email from the University of Wollongong informs a prospective Bachelor of Information Technology student that their Confirmation of Enrolment (CoE) was being withdrawn, in part due to delays in obtaining a visa.
"Unfortunately, the Australian government has recently implemented substantial changes to its migration strategy," the email states. "Given those changes, the close commencement of your preferred intake, and the fact you have not yet received a visa outcome as yet, UOW has determined that you are unlikely to meet the new criteria to obtain a positive visa outcome."
A CoE is issued by a university after a student has met the university's requirements and is used to show their student visa application is tied to a place at a university. Mr Mulder said the fact that a university was withdrawing their offer prior to the finalisation of a visa by the Australian government signalled events were heading into "new territory".
"Typically what would happen would be that a CoE is withdrawn if an institution discovers that a fraud may have occurred, there might be some documentation that may not add up, or there may be an error in the admissions process," he said.
The move comes as the Australian government cracks down on student visas where the applicant is using study at a tertiary institution to instead work in Australia beyond what is allowed on a student visa.
With universities under additional scrutiny to ensure they are only admitting genuine students, Mr Mulder said the withdrawal by UOW may be a case of the university pre-empting the government by refusing entry to students, even when they may be genuine students.
Higher education institutions are classified into three tiers by the federal department of Home Affairs based on the risk of students at these institutions fraudulently using the student visa process as a backdoor into the Australian job market. Visas at the higher tiers are assessed faster than those at lower tiers.
UOW is a tier two provider, according to reports in December 2023 in the Sydney Morning Herald and confirmed by higher education experts The Mercury spoke to on Monday. UOW sits alongside fellow regional universities such as the University of Newcastle and Charles Sturt University, however all Sydney-based universities are ranked tier one.
Only Federation University in Victoria was ranked at tier three.
Mr Mulder said if the University of Wollongong dropped to tier three its ability to attract international students would be compromised, as the delays would be inexorable.
"We're seeing a whole new level of how aggressive universities will be to ensure they stay out of level three."
Navneet Mittal, Wollongong-based Asian International Student Association president, said he had a report of CoEs being withdrawn prior to the finalisation of a visa, but suspected that others may be out there and were yet to make contact.
Mr Mittal said for those students who are affected, they could have spent tens of thousands of dollars already, across visa applications, enrolment deposits and health insurance, and would lose some of this in exchange rates, even when these expenses are refunded.
While he welcomed the government's move to apply extra scrutiny to the student visa process, Mr Mittal said prospective students were often at a loss as to why their visa was rejected.
"It needs a lot of planning and a lot of people take loans [to apply]," he said.
In a statement, UOW declined to state how many CoEs had been withdrawn for students who hoped to begin studying in 2024, but said that the university had adjusted its processes after being informed by the Department of Home Affairs of an "elevated risk of non-genuine applications" .
"DoHA maintains strict rules that ensure the university sector in Australia is able to ensure genuine students enter Australia to study, and provides rigorous data, trends and entry requirements to universities to help manage this risk," the statement read.
"The University of Wollongong welcomes this approach and works in strict alignment with DoHA guidance and continuously monitors compliance risks, as a standard and embedded practice within its university admissions process and international agent management."