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Australia Seeks Council on Overseas Student Reform

clock iconCreated At:06 June, 2023
write iconCreated By:Allaa Ashraf

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According to an Education Department representative, vast-ranging changes are to be enacted by the Australian government this academic year in order to put a stop to unethical agent behaviour and the non-genuine students who switch courses aided by onshore agents.

The government is also taking amendments to written agreements between students and institutions and the ESOS National Code into consideration. These are likely to witness changes in the near future as a result of the upcoming migration review.

Alsion Cleary, the acting assistant secretary of the International Quality Branch in the Education Department’s International Division, did some outlining at an event this week on the amendments that the government is taking into consideration with regard to international students.

Officials are keeping a close watch on “rogue or inappropriate” agent behaviour and possible amendments to written agreements with international students, as well as consulting with the sector to make a decision on the next best steps forward. Other live discussions within the department include connecting student visas with institutions and English language proficiency. 

Despite decisions being still in the air with no final decision in sight and consultations still ongoing, the government hopes and expects to introduce one complete change in this calendar year.

“With regard to education agents, we’re aware that this is an area of enduring concern in the sector where there 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.

She also added that agents involved in facilitating enrollments for the purposes of human trafficking are “enormously distressing”.

“There’s also a general concern that high commissions and the market power wielded by agents have 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”. Cleary continued. 

The department is looking to “put some downward pressure” on agent commissions. However, she noted that “it is quite a tricky matter” to regulate offshore agents.

Cleary added, “While we understand the notion of a fully regulated model, it’s really challenging to actually put it into practice. So we’re looking at how else we can manage some of the risks that rogue or inappropriate agent behaviour might create.”

She also said that in the context of the upcoming migration review, the government is taking into consideration how student visas operate. Concerns about the current system and how it allows students to switch institutions while onshore have been brought to the table as something in-country agents have been taking advantage of.

Some non-genuine actors use concurrent study when students enrol in more than one course as a potential option.

“[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 in line with Australian consumer law as well as competition policy, Cleary noted.

There are concerns about the unintended consequences of caps on commissions and that they 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.”

Cleary suggested that 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”. 

The department is also aware that the subagents exist but is instead focusing on the last entity’s behaviours in the recruitment chain, which include the body, entity, organisation, person, and business that brought the students to the provider, added Cleary.

Minister O’Neill announced on April 27, under the migration review, that a huge body of work between the departments of Home Affairs, Education, and Employment is expected.

The department can easily view how institutions are assessing their students’ English language proficiency via PRISMS. However, Cleary made note that proficiency in English is important for student workforce and employability outcomes, particularly with regard to international students and how they are a “major feeder group for Australia’s permanent migration strategy”.

In some cases during the pandemic, written agreements that international students had to sign to enrol at Australian education providers appeared to be “unfair and unreasonable”. This was brought to light in a report from the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office, which suggested that back in November of last year. 

“[Written agreements] are really a tangible demonstration of our reputation, our commitment to fairness and providing a really good student experience,” she said.

Although the National Code already provides necessary requirements around how those agreements are put together and structured, the Ombudsman “particularly noticed” that students do not have much of an opportunity to negotiate the contracts, thus being in a position where they need to be considered under standard contract terms, which will have an impact on Australian consumer law regarding the 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.

A suggested option is to introduce non-obligatory model clauses, which would mean convening a separate consultative process, to “make clear or provide guidance and support” to make sure that agreements will eventually meet all requirements and aspirations for the documents.

Aligning Tuition Protection Service refund operations between both international and domestic students more closely is another issue being addressed. TPS was rated “a suitable tuition protection mechanism for international education” in a Nous report in April 2022.

“There is a broader discussion around how refunds are managed vis-à-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.

Earlier this week, Jason Clare, the minister of education, went on an ABC RN Breakfast interview and noted that the March agreement with India on the 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 both prime ministers, Narendra Modi and Anthony Albanese, will “build on that”, he added.

“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 stated.

The unethical 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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