Chinese state media has issued a "red alert" advising students not to enrol in Australian universities after a series of public accusations that Canberra was delaying visas for politically motivated reasons.
Many Chinese students and scholars have said that their Australian visa applications have been taking "oddly long" since 2015, with most of those affected from an engineering or technology background.
"Australia thinks we are academic spies, or that there is some kind of grand conspiracy behind us," one student said.
"Isn't that ridiculous? We just want to go there to study. It's not that complicated at all."
Earlier this month, the China Scholarship Council under the Chinese Education Ministry also alerted students that "in order to avoid unnecessary losses caused by Australian visa applications, we'd like to remind students going to Australia to make plans in advance".
"Research Australian visa policies, and carefully choose the country and institution you want to study in," it added.
The accusation of delays in processing visa applications follows an increase in tensions between the two nations.
Last October, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued a blunt warning to Chinese university students affiliated with the Communist Party, urging them to respect freedom of speech in Australia.
China also reacted furiously to proposed foreign interference laws, accusing the Australian Government of making "irresponsible" comments which have hurt "political mutual trust", after Australia unveiled the biggest overhaul of espionage and intelligence laws in decades amid growing concerns over international interference in Australia.
The Global Times, a state-owned Chinese newspaper, recently blamed the "anti-China rhetoric" in Australia for the prolonged visa processing time for Chinese students.
The newspaper also told students "do not go to Australia" for the time being: "It's not worth it to let the narrow-minded Australian Government sabotage your future!"
'Delaying rather than outright denying'
Many of the students, frustrated by the wait, agree with the Global Times' sentiment.
"The immigration department has been delaying, rather than outright denying our applications," one student said.
Having been funded by the Chinese Government, the student, who asked to remain anonymous, was accepted into a PhD program last July, and it's now five months past his scheduled October enrolment.
They were waiting for a visa even though the Department of Home Affairs states that 90 per cent of his visa category are processed in 74 days.
"If they had just refused to grant me a visa last October, I could have gone to Canada with the same funding," they said.
"But it's March now and there are no available places at universities anymore."
The student said they felt that Australia was jeopardising their future and making them pay for the political tensions between the two countries.
"If I don't go to Australia this year, I won't be eligible for another CSC grant in five years, and I can't do anything about it — if I were from a wealthy family, I would have left for another country to study by now," they said.
"The Cold War was over a long time ago … this hurts Australian academia, too."
The student is a member of a 200-people online chat group for students and scholars who have been offered a place at Australian universities and secured funding.
In the group, which is "bursting with negativity", more than 80 members have waited for their visas more than six months and missed their enrolment deadlines — the longest wait in the group is currently at 18 months.
Jasmine Deng, 26, a bioengineering PhD student accepted in to a Group Eight university, told the ABC that she is "anxious" and "very worried" as this may happen to her as well as her program requires her to arrive in Australia no later than end of May.
"[The visa delays] created a lot of uncertainty and unnecessary stress for the students and could jeopardise our overseas study plan," she said.
'Visa requirements not specific to Chinese': Home Affairs
In a statement issued on March 16, the Australian Embassy in Beijing said it acknowledges "that a small number of postgraduate research students and research scholars have experienced visa delays, which is causing stress to some individuals".
A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs told the ABC in 2016 to 2017 it granted 2,630 subclass 408 and 80,423 subclass 500 visas to Chinese nationals — this equates to a grant rate of 99 and 97 per cent respectively.
"The timing for the completion of these checks varies from one case to another, depending on individual circumstances," the spokesperson said.
"These requirements are not new and they are not specific to Chinese nationals; they apply to all visa applicants irrespective of their country of origin."
Fiona Zammit, the executive officer of the Australian Council of Graduate Research, said that her institution was made aware of cases where applications for visas by Chinese students were taking longer than expected.
"In three or four cases the delay has resulted in students choosing to go to another country," Ms Zammit said.
"Unnecessary and avoidable delays can potentially affect candidates from a range of countries and jeopardise international student enrolments and fee income."
The Chinese Education Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.