Australia’s government is looking to enact wide-ranging changes this academic year to put a stop to unscrupulous agent behaviour and non-genuine students switching courses aided by onshore agents, according to an Education department representative.
It is also considering amendments to written agreements between students and institutions and the ESOS National Code, which is likely to see changes as a result of the upcoming migration review.
Acting assistant secretary of the International Quality Branch in the Education Department’s International Division, Alison Cleary, outlined amendments the government is considering regarding international students at an event this week.
Connecting student visas with institutions and English language proficiency are live discussions within the department. “Rogue or inappropriate” agent behaviour and possible changes to written agreements with international students are areas where officials are keeping a close eye and consulting with the sector to decide on the next best steps forward.
While decisions have not been made and consultations are continuing, government hopes and expects to introduce one complete raft of changes in this calendar year.
“With regard to education agents, we’re aware that this is an area of enduring concern in the sector where they might be a possibility for education agents to be acting outside of the requirement to act ethically in the best interests of the student,” Cleary said.
Agents involved in facilitating enrolments for the purposes of human trafficking is “enormously distressing”, she added.
“There’s also a general concern that high commissions and the market power wielded by agents are having the potential to distort the way that the market for international students is operating, and that’s creating some concern amongst the sector and among students. If these behaviours are left unchecked, they have the potential to damage the sector and the reputation of the sector.”
The department is looking to “put some downward pressure” on agent commissions.
However, she noted that “it is a quite a tricky matter” to regulate offshore agents.
“Whilst we understand the notion of a fully regulated model, it’s really challenging to actually do in practice. So we’re looking at how else we can manage some of the risks that rogue or inappropriate agent behaviour might create.”
Cleary said that in the context of the upcoming migration review, the government is considering how student visas operate. There have been concerns that the current system allows students to switch institutions while onshore, which in-country agents have been taking advantage of, as previously reported by The PIE.
Concurrent study, when students enrol in more than one course, is also being used as an option by some non-genuine actors, she said.
“But when we’re thinking about these issues, we do also think about the right of the student as a consumer to have some choice in how they might transfer. There are places in which a transfer is a legitimate consumer choice,” she noted.
“It’s all about getting those considerations right and coming up with a balance that matches needs,” she said, adding that any changes will be designed to be “easily digestible” by the sector.
The process must be consistent with Australian consumer law and competition policy, she continued.
There are concerns about unintended consequences of caps on commissions and that it could “push commissions underground”.
“We’re looking at a range of different market based approaches that are intended to increase transparency… We think there may be other measures that might be more effective and perhaps less of a regulatory impost than doing something like a hard cap.”
Confidentiality requirements around agent performance could impact transparency, but “we do think that an increase in transparency is going to be part of what we’re looking at going forward”, she suggested.
On subagents, the department is aware that subagents exist but it is focusing on the behaviours of the last entity in the recruitment chain i.e. the body, entity, organisation, person, business that brought the student to the provider, she said.
Under the migration review, announced by Minister O’Neill on April 27, a major body of work between departments of Home Affairs, education and employment is expected.
Via PRISMS the department can see how institutions are assessing students’ English language proficiency, but Cleary acknowledged that proficiency in English is key for student workforce and employability outcomes, especially with regards to international students being a “major feeder group for Australia’s permanent migration strategy”.
In November of last year, a report from the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office suggested that written agreements, that international students must sign to enrol at Australian education providers, appeared “unfair and unreasonable” in some cases during the pandemic.
“Written agreements are really a tangible demonstration of our reputation, our commitment to fairness and providing a really good student experience,” she said.
While the National Code already provides requirements around how those agreements are structured, the Ombudsman “particularly noticed” that students do not have much opportunity to negotiate the contracts – therefore they need to be considered under standard contract terms, which will impact on Australian consumer law with regards to responsibilities and obligations of both parties.
“The department is considering options and asking for views about how we can once again get that balance right between responsibilities and obligations for both parties while making sure that we’re meeting our obligations on consumer law and putting our best foot forward in terms of our reputation with our students,” she explained.
One option is introducing non-mandatory model clauses – which would mean convening a separate consultative process – to “make clear or provide guidance and support” provider to ensure agreements will meet all obligations and aspirations for the documents.
Another issue being considered is around aligning Tuition Protection Service refund operations between international and domestic students more closely. In April 2022, TPS was rated “a suitable tuition protection mechanism for international education” in a Nous report.
“There is a broader discussion around how refunds are managed vis a vis written agreements and so forth. These are going to be, I think, relatively small technical amendments that we’d be looking at, and they’d probably be fed into a broader process of looking at refunds,” Cleary said.
In a ABC RN Breakfast interview earlier this week, education minister Jason Clare noted that the March agreement with India on mutual recognition of university qualifications will “make it easier for students in both of our countries to study in each other’s country”. An agreement between prime ministers Narendra Modi and Anthony Albanese will “build on that”, he indicated.
“There’s a number of universities that have put a halt on applications from students from some Indian states at the moment. I understand that’s because we’ve seen a jump in the number of visa cancellations after the university application has taken place, after a student is in Australia and has dropped out of that university qualification,” he added.
Unscrupulous behaviour of some education agents in Australia sees them “enticing students to drop out of their university degrees and either go into a TAFE qualification or out of the education system altogether”, the minister continued.
Minister for Home Affairs, Clare O’Neil, Skills minister, Brendan O’Connor, and Clare are “looking at the reforms we need to take here to ensure the integrity of our system”, he concluded.
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