Two more Australian universities have put a ban on enroling students from some Indian states, including Punjab and Haryana, after the government raised concerns about visa fraud, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

The Federation University in Victoria and Western Sydney University in New South Wales made the decision as rejection rates for Indian applicants across all Australian universities have increased to their highest level in a decade. According to the Department of Home Affairs, one in four applications are now being deemed “fraudulent” or “non-genuine”.

The development comes at a time when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese on Wednesday signed a migration deal to boost Indian student and business travel to Australia.

The Australian Department of Education has said that it is aware of “unscrupulous behaviour” in the international education sector such as education agents allegedly offering inducements to students to move from universities to cheaper vocational education institutes.

In the country, education agents are the major means through which international students join universities, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. Universities and colleges pay these agents commissions worth thousands of dollars for every student enrolment.

The Federation University has directed the agents to not recruit students from Punjab, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, the newspaper reported.

“The university has observed a significant increase in the proportion of visa applications being refused from some Indian regions by the Department of Home Affairs,” it said. “We hoped this would prove to be a short-term issue [but] it is now clear there is a trend emerging.”

One-fourth of the people studying at the Federation University are international students, reported The Sydney Morning Herald. It is not clear how many of them are Indians.

The Western Sydney University has stopped recruiting students from Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat, saying that a large number of them who enrolled in 2022 have dropped out. This has led to a “significantly high attrition rate”.

The university told the education agents in a letter that it was implementing stricter rules to address the issue of “non-genuine” students enrolling from these regions, according to the newspaper. The rules include “application screening, stricter admission conditions and increases in commencement fees”.

Last week, the Department of Home Affairs had said during a federal parliamentary inquiry that Australian universities were now refusing 20.1% of applications – from 12.5% in 2019. The rejection rate for applications from India is 24.3%, the highest since 2012.

International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood said during the inquiry that many parents from other countries desperately want to send their children abroad and often end up taking the help of education agents.

“Often the students are the victim of this same culture of exploitation where you have the offshore agent who has got the cousin with a separate office in Melbourne, maybe with a different company name,” Honeywood said, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

He added: “And so the offshoring agent takes a commission from the student’s family to get them into the country, and then what often happens is that the cousin based in Melbourne as an onshore agent will then actually poach the same student off the university or the quality private provider and have them placed, for an additional commission, into another provider.”

The increase in applications from South Asia began after the former Scott Morrison government last year removed the 20-hour weekly limit on the amount of work international students could do, reported The Sydney Morning Herald.

Due to this, students with a low-skill Australian work visa were encouraged to apply to cheaper education institutions, according to the newspaper. The present Anthony Albanese government is planning to reintroduce a new work limit on July 1, putting a limit on the work to 24 hours a week.

Last month, four universities had banned the enrolment of students from specific Indian states such as Punjab and Haryana, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. Two other universities had also banned enrolment but did not mention any particular state.