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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A ticket to study down under

A ticket to study down under

Studying in Australia is not just a matter of finding a university and catching a plane. A rigorous visa application process must first be navigated

Photo by: Heng Chiovan

Australian Visa Services general manager Rasmey Sokmongkol helps Cambodian students who want to study in Australia navigate through the application process.

Australia's 39 universities and its other institutes of higher learning are emerging as a key destination for Cambodian students looking abroad for a quality education. But for anyone who wants to study in Australia, the daunting process of applying for an Australian visa stands in the way.

The first step in the student visa process is proving that one has the English skills for Australian coursework by taking an International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam, said Rasmey Sokmongkol, the general manager of Australian Visa Services, a registered migration agency.

The score required for a visa depends on the subject the applicant wants to study and the institution applied to. For example, acceptance into a short English course requires a much  lower score than acceptance into a full-course load at a top university, he said.

While the minimum IELTS exam score required to study at an Australian university is 6.0, Vann Vorng, the manager of Vann Vorng Migration Consultants, said a score between 4.5 and 4.9 could qualify a student for some non-university courses "depending on the subject requirements".

Agencies are not treated differently in any way from applicants who lodge their applications themselves.

If an applicant's scores aren't quite up to snuff yet, the Australian Centre for Education (ACE) offers IELTS classes to help people raise their scores.

To get help or go it alone?

If one's English skills are up to par, a person then needs decide whether to use a migration agent to help with the visa process. For a fee, migration agencies will walk a person through the steps of acquiring a visa, but they will not increase one's chances of having one's application accepted by the embassy.

"[Migration] agencies are not treated differently in any way from applicants who lodge their applications themselves," said Fiona Cochaud, an Australian embassy spokesperson.

But Rasmey Sokmongkol said that even though the embassy doesn't treat the applicants any differently, the universities often do. "Universities prefer working with agents because of standard forms and standard formats. Many universities already have appointed agents - mostly IDP," he said, referring to the International Development Program for Australian Universities and Colleges (IDP), a private company with offices worldwide offering offering student placement and English language testing services.

For people who do prefer to use an agent, Cochaud said the embassy strongly recommended using an agent registered with the Australian Migration Agents Registration Authority (MARA), but it is not yet a requirement.

Rasmey Sokmongkol, whose company is registered with MARA, refers to unregistered agents in Cambodia as "Khmer cowboys", because of their contempt for the law. He said that a few unregistered agents will even go as far as to sell a fraudulent visa for ten times the price of a legal one. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't, he said.

He also added that it is against the MARA code of conduct for a registered agent to accept a case that has little chance of being approved, saving an applicant time and giving a person peace of mind. Most registered agents cost around US$200.

People applying to an Australian institute of higher learning need to get a hold of a lot of paperwork to prove they are "bona fide applicants". Their passports, birth certificates, identification cards and residence books all have to match, and applicants need to show papers that demonstrate they have passed a penal clearance and had a recent health check.

The next step is getting accepted by an Australian institute of higher learning, which you can do directly or with the help of an agent. IDP says it often helps Cambodians with this process.

After being accepted to an institution, people need to show they can pay in order to receive a visa. Between 30 and 35 Cambodians win scholarships to study in Australia every year, according to IDP, but others need to open their bank accounts to Australian authorities to show that they have enough money to pay tuition, room and board and travel expenses. Generally, according to Rasmey Sokmongkol, a person has to show an active bank account of around $20,000.

Though this is still a great deal of money, compared to studying in other English-speaking countries, Australia is a deal. "For Cambodian students, what attracts them the most is that Australia is cheaper than the UK or US  and they're allowed to work 20 hours [a week] while at school," an IDP spokesman said.

The last step that the embassy considers is a person's incentive to return. If a person has property assets or a family back in Cambodia, the person is considered less of a flight risk.

Many students are not old enough to have property or a spouse and thus may require an assurance of support from their families. The embassy will take into account one's entire family history, but one bad apple somewhere in the family will not necessarily disqualify a person, according to Rasmey Sokmongkol.

Koy Kuong, the undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, studied at an Australian university through a scholarship and considers himself lucky to have had the opportunity.

"I studied abroad and got a whole new experience ... It was very helpful - especially the English language." 

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