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The Evolution and Impact of the so-called COVID visa on Student Visa

History of the Temporary Activity visa (subclass 408) (COVID-19 Pandemic event)

The COVID-19 pandemic was officially declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11 March 2020. The COVID-19 declaration marked a significant milestone in the response to the pandemic and triggered various measures and international efforts to combat the spread of the virus and mitigate its impact on public health and society.

The Department of Home Affairs responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by implementing measures to control the spread of the virus, protect public health, and ensure the safety of citizens and residents.

In April 2020, Individuals found themselves unable to depart Australia due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions imposed by countries. They were faced with limitations on their ability to apply for any substantive temporary visa to remain in Australia. The COVID‑19 Pandemic event for Subclass 408 (Temporary Activity) visa was established by the Department to support temporary visa holders and international students who were unable to leave Australia.

In September 2020, it was impossible to leave Australia due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and individuals were still able to apply for a short-term Subclass 408 visa. Applicants were granted a longer Covid visa if they had received employment offers from either an approved provider or a service provider of a Commonwealth‑funded aged care service for work in the aged care sector.

In January 2021, Visa applicant who were employed by or had received a job offer from an employer in one of the critical sectors (Aged care, Agriculture, Child care, Disability care, Food processing, and Health care) could apply for a Subclass 408 Covid visa if they had no other temporary visa options.

In May 2021, tourism and hospitality sector was added to the critical sectors eligible for the 408 visa.

In February 2022, individuals who were present in Australia and engaged in any sector, or had a valid job offer in Australia, became eligible to apply for the COVID visa. Initially, if their work did not fall under the critical sector category, they were granted a 6-month visa. However, this duration was later extended to 12 months for all applicants.

For those who arrived in Australia after February 21, 2022, possessing working rights on the visa became a prerequisite. This requirement was implemented to exclude certain visa categories, like visitor visas, from the program, unless the visa holders secured an offer of employment from a Commonwealth-funded aged care service.

September 2, 2023, the Pandemic Event visa is only be open to applications from existing Pandemic Event visa holders. All other visa holders are ineligible for this visa. New applications must pay a Visa Application Charge, and receive a six-month Covid visa.

From February 2024, the Pandemic Event visa will be closed to all applicants. This decision is made because the circumstances that led to the creation of this visa are no longer relevant.

COVID Visa Misuse by student visa holders

In the 2021-2022 financial year, 87,900 Covid visas was lodged. It is estimated that more than 120,000 people have been granted this visa to work unlimited hours for a year.

Approximately one in six international students are estimated to have transitioned from their student visa to a Subclass 408, commonly referred to as the COVID visa, in the past year. This increase in numbers primarily involves students from India, the Philippines, and Nepal exploiting the system to secure full-time employment. This visa was misused by some students as a backdoor to the Australian job market.

Certain students arrived in Australia to pursue short-term courses, such as a 12-week English program, and subsequently transitioned to a Subclass 408 visa. Additionally, some students and their dependents leveraged this visa to retain full working rights after 1 July 2023.

Now that the federal government has phased out this COVID-era visa, people who hold a Pandemic Event visa must explore another visa option, or plan to leave Australia. More than 20,000 international students applied and been granted a Subclass 408 – covid visa.

Some applicants may be eligible for a permanent visa to extend their stay in Australia. A General Skilled Migration (GSM) visa or an Employer-Sponsored Visa could be an option for some applicants who already have the required qualification and/or work experience for the visa application.

Post-COVID Visa Plans for Students

Several applicants may intend to study in Australia after their Covid visa. One of the criteria to be granted a student visa (Subclass 500) is to be a genuine applicant for entry and stay as a student. The Department of Home currently assesses the Genuine Temporary Entrant Criterion for Student Visas under the Direction No. 69. To be approved, an applicant must genuinely intend to enter temporarily and genuinely intend to pursue their studies.

The "genuine temporary entrant" requirement for Student visa applications means that the Minister needs to be sure that the applicant truly intends to stay in Australia for a temporary period. This assessment takes into account:

a. The applicant's personal situation.

b. The applicant's previous immigration history.

c. If the applicant is a minor (underage), the intentions of their parent, legal guardian, or spouse.

d. Any other important factors that may be relevant to this determination.

Media recently reported a potential replacement for the Genuine Temporary Entrant (GTE) requirement. This new test, known as the Genuine Student Test (GST), is expected to come into effect. However, under this test, a student visa can be granted even if the applicant is seeking a pathway to a permanent visa. Applicants attempting to exploit the student visa route solely for work and residence in Australia face immediate rejection.

Although studying under the 408 Covid visa was not restricted, the primary purpose of this visa was to fill labour shortages. “The Pandemic Event visa was an important part of Australia’s visa system during the pandemic. Many people on temporary visas helped Australia during this period," Andrew Giles said in a statement.

Foreign students who abandoned their studies to take up low-skill jobs or arrived in Australia on short-term student visas with the sole intention of applying for a COVID visa are likely to fall short of meeting the Genuine Temporary Entrant (GTE) criteria, as they may not qualify as as genuine students.

In summary, for students who currently hold or have previously held a COVID visa, it is highly advisable to seek guidance from a registered migration agent. This is important to assess their eligibility against the student visa criteria because each individual may have unique circumstances that require expert evaluation and assistance.

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