The Labor Party has pledged to take strict action against the unregulated practices of international education agents following revelations of their involvement in student recruitment schemes, including the alleged participation of general practitioners, according to the Guardian.
Australian universities have long relied on foreign agents to boost enrolments and provide support to students overseas in matters such as applications and accommodation.
However, these agents are now facing accusations of enticing international students with misleading assurances of full-time employment opportunities and a guaranteed path to permanent residency. It has been alleged that these agents receive substantial bonuses from private providers, despite the poor quality of the courses offered.
During a parliamentary inquiry on Monday, it was revealed that counsellors and general practitioners (GPs) were allegedly involved in facilitating “institution swapping” for international students, allowing agents to earn extra commissions.
The agents would initially help students obtain visas to enrol in prestigious universities, and then collaborate with medical professionals who would provide medical certificates to support their transfer to less expensive private providers.
Within a six-month timeframe, international students require approval from their current institution to switch to a different provider, and grounds such as illness or distressing events are considered valid reasons for changing institutions. The parliamentary inquiry brought attention to these practices and their potential impact on the integrity of the education system.
Varsha Devi Balakrishnan, an international education specialist from the Lygon Group, testified during the inquiry, highlighting how agents exploit a “loophole” by securing visas for students at prestigious public institutions before subsequently transferring them to cheaper providers, sometimes multiple times.
She explained that agents have access to counsellors and GPs who can provide the necessary documentation to facilitate the process of institution swapping. Balakrishnan observed that many students engage in conversations with agents prior to their arrival, hoping that pursuing education in Australia will lead to employment opportunities in the country. However, she emphasised that students often encounter numerous hurdles and barriers in achieving their desired work outcomes.
Senator Deborah O’Neill, chair of the committee, expressed concerns about the international education sector, previously characterised as a “Ponzi scheme,” stating that it is highly susceptible to exploitation and poses a reputation risk to Australia. The former government conducted an industry-led review that spanned two years but failed to reach a consensus among key industry bodies.
O’Neill emphasised that while there were extensive discussions, the necessary steps to prevent gross exploitation and ensure the protection of international students were not taken. She criticised the lack of action in addressing the issue and pointed out that there was no Formalised timetable for reforms. However, both the government and the committee acknowledged that delay was not an option.
O’Neill stressed the need for careful and thoughtful governance and urged against postponing necessary changes for several more years, emphasising the importance of taking timely and decisive action.
During the inquiry, Dr Angela Lehmann, another representative from the Lygon Group, revealed instances where diaspora communities had exploited vulnerable offshore students even before their arrival in Australia, often through social media platforms like WeChat. She highlighted that students would be shocked to discover the high rates of commission that agents were receiving, which could be as high as 50% of their fees.
Dr Lehmann also pointed out that the relaxed work restrictions for student visa holders during the pandemic had played a role. Agents would misinform international students, falsely claiming that they could work as much as they wanted upon arriving in Australia. Labor has announced its intention to reintroduce restrictions on work for student visa holders.
Although peak bodies within the industry agreed that reform was necessary to prevent malpractice, there was a lack of consensus on the best approach to achieve it.
Catriona Jackson, the CEO of Universities Australia, expressed her shock at the reports of the exploitation of international students, emphasising that it has cast a cloud over the reputation of tertiary education. She acknowledged that while there are reputable actors within the industry, there are also unscrupulous individuals and organisations.
Jackson called for a comprehensive approach involving multiple stakeholders, including government departments and education providers. However, she asserted that the majority of problems lie outside the university sector and defended the current self-regulation approach. She disagreed with the notion that the existing system is effective, stating that it contradicts the available evidence.
According to Jackson, it is evident that someone is profiting from the current situation, but it is not the students. She expressed concern about the existence of a shadow economy driven by unprofessional incentives, emphasising that it is both ethically wrong and inconsistent with the standards expected in the industry.
Robert Parsonson, the executive officer of the International Student Education Agents Association, criticised the lack of accountability within the sector, pointing out the absence of effective communication between education providers and government departments.
Parsonson highlighted that the Department of Home Affairs has less than 20 staff members responsible for overseeing more than 5,000 registered trading officers. This, according to him, is a clear indication of the severe lack of resources allocated to ensuring proper regulation and oversight.
Despite concerns about the sector, international student enrolment and commencement levels in 2023 have matched or even exceeded the figures from 2019. The growth has been primarily driven by countries in South Asia, including India, Pakistan, and Nepal.
During the inquiry, Labor MP Julian Hill expressed scepticism about the sustainability of such rapid growth, citing historical evidence as a reason for suspicion. Hill cautioned that the substantial growth figures raised alarm bells and warranted further investigation into their long-term viability.