Abuses in the international education system are causing a crackdown

If you keep your eye on Australian politics, it’s easy to spot the way in which our politicians have a tendency to thrive ideas from down under.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

At a couple of events at the Conservative Conference, attendees have been reminded that Australia has ambitions to grow its international student numbers.

It’s a strategy that’s partly about tapping the Tories’ competitiveness instinct when faced with the prospect of further restrictions on the immigration rules surrounding students.

What we don’t tend to hear from sector lobbyists in the UK is what the Australian government is doing to protect students and prevent fraud.

Education stands as Australia’s biggest export industry outside mining – it’s worth more than $40 billion per year and supports 250,000 jobs. But increases in applications have caused concern about the conduct of unethical agents.

Earlier this week Education minister Jason Clare noted that while international students are back post-pandemic, “so are the shonks seeking to exploit them and undermine our international education system.”

He continued: “That’s why we are acting. Students from around the world choose to come here first and foremost for the high-quality education we offer.”

The plan – jointly launched by ministers for education, skills and home affairs – will deliver on recommendations in a review into exploitation of Australia’s visa system (Nixon Review) triggered by revelations in a series of reports by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes on human trafficking, foreign worker exploitation and visa scams.

It found that 15 per cent of all student visa holders withdrew from their course and failed to re-enrol onto other courses. And For Nixon, in the firing line was a regulatory system problematically focused “on achieving quality education outcomes rather than deterring and disrupting visa exploitation”.

It’s not been officially published, but a leaked version somehow found its way into the arms of the Sydney Morning Herald.

One of the more disturbing revelations in the report was evidence of a criminal network in the agent industry geared towards sex trafficking – but more generally it found that the system had evolved into a “Ponzi scheme” in which agents were paid bonuses to “lure” students with the promise of full-time work.

Now the government has announced its response – which, according to skills minister Brendan O’Connor, will involve action to “strengthen the quality and integrity” of the sector where “student welfare” is the “highest priority”.

  • A set of risk indicators will be introduced across the international education system
  • These will inform a monitoring framework that will drive targeted compliance by education regulators
  • Monitoring of student attendance is to be increased
  • The government will also amend the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 (ESOS Act) to strengthen the existing fit and proper provider test, preventing cross-ownership of businesses between education providers and education agents

There will also be a ban on agent commissions on student transfers between providers in Australia to remove incentives for unscrupulous agents and providers to “poach” students.

Providers will also be given greater access to agent performance data such as student completion rates and visa rejection rates to help providers choose quality education agents as partners.

Could this sort of stuff arrive in the UK? In many ways, it’s astonishing that it hasn’t – like the UK, Australia is both keen on the economic benefits of international students but keen to show that it’s tough on abuses. And I’ve lost count of the number of stories I’ve heard from international student reps about the outright lies told to them by agents – and the shock when they realise how much how of their tuition fee has likely been handed over to said agents.

At yesterday’s How Much Immigration is Too Much? Policy Exchange event at Conservative Conference, a Sky News journo asked what the panel thought about the target for HE providers “only being 90 per cent of overseas students having to actually turn up to their course” and “completion rate only being 85 per cent”… that being a “huge kind of uncovered moment.” Robert Jenrick’s face on the Blankety Blank-style panel of close-ups is one to watch.

2 responses to “Abuses in the international education system are causing a crackdown

  1. This is a really complex issue. UK universities do need to pay some serious attention to the behaviours of recruitment agents, in order to ensure the same problems aren’t repeating themselves here. And they should do it pre-emptively and collectively, before the governments ask their regulators to intervene and the whole thing becomes a burdensome battleground.

    But the key difference between England (specifically) and Australia is that ministers there are intervening to *protect* the reputation of their sector, whereas ministers here undermine our reputation constantly. Repeated claims about poor quality courses; increasingly draconian immigration reforms targeted at international students; stories about the international fee subsidising the domestic fee; persistent and pernicious under funding of the sector through a diminishing unit of resource – all of these things combine to make England an increasingly unattractive destination for international students. Unless the government steps in to actually support higher education, the behaviour of recruitment agents will become a moot point. International students will choose to go elsewhere, anyway.

  2. There is a widespread problem of international students quitting their course and getting a job in a care home to switch to a work visa. I’m not sure how often this is because of financial pressures and how often people plan to do this before arrival.

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