When Iranian Behzad Pournori received an offer for a full scholarship at RMIT University in February last year, he was elated.
He applied for a student visa right away, and in May, filled out supplementary forms with personal details needed to assess whether he satisfied “character requirements”.
Since then, he’s heard nothing from the Department of Home Affairs. Almost a year after lodging an application, his visa status is unchanged.
“I’ve had to defer my commencement date three times now and if I don’t receive my visa soon, I’ll lose my scholarship, even though I have tried so hard to acquire it,” said Pournori, who is still in Iran. “No one is helping.”
Pournori is not alone. He’s in a 300-member WhatsApp group for fellow Iranian PhD candidates who are still waiting for visa decisions – despite receiving full scholarships to study at Australian universities.
Students from Iran – and other countries including India, China and Pakistan – have long faced lengthy security and clearance checks when applying for visas, with wait times sometimes blowing out in excess of three years.
But anti-government political demonstrations in Iran that have seen hundreds killed and at least 14,000 arrested since September are exacerbating anguish.
Experts worry the visa delays could risk a decline in research standards at Australian universities – and could prompt students to study elsewhere.
“We are so sad because of the disappointing situation in Iran … we are continuously worried about our future lives and we cannot live without stress,” Pournori said. “It’s getting worse and worse.”
‘A matter of urgency’
An Iranian dentist who didn’t wish to be named over fears for her personal safety received a fully funded scholarship in August to study for a PhD at the University of New South Wales.
Initially the 27-year-old had planned to research in Iran after graduating last year, but as countries imposed severe sanctions on Iran over its violent suppression of protests, some dental materials were no longer available – and the graduate’s research was abandoned. International study was the only option.
After gaining admission to UNSW, she lodged her visa, and was planning to start her first semester on 13 February.
But after six months in limbo, she’s considering withdrawing her visa and applying to another university.
“I see students from other countries receiving their visas in one or two weeks,” said the dentist, who remains in Iran. “This has been one of the hardest experiences of my life.”
The researcher – who has been suffering from anxiety – said the political situation in Iran made her case “a matter of urgency”.
She said many of her fellow candidates had left jobs and declined offers from other high-quality international institutes in anticipation of moving to Australia. At the same time, Iran’s currency has fallen in value, affecting their savings.
“I fight for my rights as a woman in Iran,” she said. “I have been captured by the moral police nearly five times. People in my country are tortured and killed because of their beliefs and values.
“Unfortunately, we are forced to prove our innocence to authorities in other countries as well because of our place of birth.”
Another student based in Iran, who didn’t wish to be named for security reasons, received a scholarship to study at UNSW in July 2019. Three and a half years later, he still hasn’t received a visa or a clear response from authorities on his application status.
In correspondence with the inspector general of intelligence and security, provided to Guardian Australia, he was told some student visa applications were subject to a “known delay” of 18 months or more, however there was “no reason to believe” they weren’t progressing.
A broader problem
In a statement to Guardian Australia, a home affairs spokesperson said more than 87% of cases being processed by the department were less than two months old. They also pointed to data on the home affairs website for November, showing that on average, an overseas student visa application took 16 days to process. The department does not provide processing times statistics by nationality.
“The Australian government recognises the important role played by the postgraduate research sector in uplifting Australia’s reputation as a high quality destination for cutting edge research within the international education sector,” the spokesperson said.
But in a submission last month to the federal government’s review into migration, Universities Australia said the current system was “not fit for purpose” and should be stripped of “unnecessary visa classes, regulation and barriers”.
It called for a reporting protocol to supply education providers, employers and visa applicants with up-to-date data on their status and a priority system similar to the US green card regime.
“The impact of processing delays is felt not only by students abroad,” Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said. “We risk losing some of the best and brightest minds ready to solve big challenges and contribute to communities across Australia.”
An Iranian senior lecturer at UNSW – who also didn’t wish to be named for fear of his family’s safety – agreed, saying Australian university rankings could decline if the visa process wasn’t sped up given such a high proportion of PhD students were from overseas.
“Our future in Stem and engineering depends on this research … we’re facing a serious problem because we’re losing top students to top universities.
“And now with the situation in Iran, we have to think about their safety. That’s what changed in the past six months – their lives are at risk … this is an urgent matter.”
But the government has already signalled the delay problems could take some time to fix. In December, the minister for home affairs, Clare O’Neil, was asked at the National Press Club about a backlog of 1m unprocessed visa applications – including hundreds of PhD candidates from China, Pakistan and Iran.
She said some of the unprocessed applications were “more complicated than others” but having young people studying for PhDs in Australia was “crucially important”.
“We’ve got to get this system working for the country and we are really trying to do that at the moment,” she said.
“But it is turning the Titanic. This has been dormant for a long time.”