Australia cracks down on ‘dodgy’ international education players

While sector welcomes changes to be rolled out ‘imminently’, subsequent reforms could prove less popular

August 23, 2023
Source: iStock

Australia’s government has vowed to overhaul international education policies amid concerns that students, colleges and agents are exploiting weaknesses in the visa regime.

Education minister Jason Clare said Canberra would target “dodgy and unscrupulous operators” who were “trying to take advantage” of foreign students by encouraging them to treat study as a “backdoor to work”.

“This is a serious threat to the integrity of one of our biggest exports and it has got to be stamped out,” Mr Clare told the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit in Melbourne.

He said home affairs minister Clare O’Neil was weighing recommendations from two reviews headed by former chief public servant Martin Parkinson and former Victorian police commissioner Christine Nixon. Ms O’Neil, Mr Clare and skills minister Brendan O’Connor were examining how those recommendations could be implemented.

Mr Clare was also considering separate action he could take as education minister. “Watch this space very carefully in the next few days,” he told the conference.

There are mounting concerns about scams such as people enrolling with Australian universities to boost their chances of securing student visas that entitle them to work 48 hours a fortnight, then switching to cheaper vocational colleges after arriving in Australia.

Elsewhere, internal University of Sydney investigations have found that hundreds of Chinese students secured enrolments using fraudulent transcripts from private online schools in the scandal-struck Canadian province of Ontario. Sydney says it now eschews students from Ontarian colleges that have not passed its “robust verification processes”.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, which regulates Australian higher education institutions, says it is investigating several of them over rapid student transferrals and “unethical recruitment” by education agents.

Some universities and colleges have suspended or banned admissions from a cluster of northern Indian states, including Haryana, Punjab and Gujarat, amid record rejection rates for visa applications lodged in India.

Last financial year, immigration officials refused more than a quarter of overseas-based Indians’ submissions for visas to study higher education, while more than nine tenths of their bids for vocational education visas were declined.

The International Education Association of Australia said it understood the government would close a loophole allowing students to obtain certificates of enrolment in multiple institutions.

“International students are effectively enrolling in two courses at the same time, using the low-risk public university or quality private provider course to get the visa,” explained CEO Phil Honeywood. “As soon as they arrive in Australia, they’ve got another confirmation of enrolment with a much lower quality, cheaper provider in their pocket, and they never turn up to the main course.”

He said the government would “imminently” scrap the “nonsense” subclass 408 “Covid-19 pandemic event” visa. “That’s been a long time coming. Approximately…100,000 international students [have] segued into a full-time work visa, and been allowed to do so with very little oversight.”

The government also intends to “throw out” a requirement for student visa applicants to lodge 300-word statements declaring that they have no intention to migrate to Australia, he said. Critics say this practice conflicts with the government’s public pleas for skilled foreign graduates to stay.

Mr Honeywood said all these changes had the sector’s support. “I think we’re headed in the right direction,” he told the conference.

Some likely reforms might prove less popular with the sector, such as the migration review’s advocacy of tougher entry requirements for students and tighter rules around skilled migration.

A joint standing committee is also likely to push for firmer regulation of education agents. Mr Honeywood said the sector favoured an “industry-led” regulatory model. “When government gets involved, sometimes it has unanticipated consequences,” he said.

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