Australia cracks down on international education scams

Observers welcome efforts to tackle visa fraud but say new compliance efforts must be ‘robust’

October 3, 2023
Australian police boat
Source: iStock

Australia’s government will almost double the budget of its vocational education and training (VET) regulator by bankrolling a new “integrity unit” to combat scams threatening the country’s booming international education industry.

The A$38 million (£20 million) boost will fund a “compliance blitz” on “bottom feeders” who “traduce” the sector’s reputation, according to the skills minister, Brendan O’Connor.

The new unit, announced by Mr O’Connor on 3 October, is among a series of measures rolled out in response to a review by former Victorian police commissioner Christine Nixon. It found that networks of corrupt colleges and education agents were perpetrating work scams, visa fraud and other criminal activity including sex trafficking.

While these practices are thought to be concentrated in the VET sector, universities and other higher education institutions play an often unwitting role when their recently arrived overseas students are lured into vocational colleges with cheaper tuition fees and few attendance checks.

On 2 October, the education minister, Jason Clare, said Canberra would increase monitoring of student attendance and ban agents from claiming commissions on student transferrals between Australian institutions.

He said the government would also help universities and other institutions choose their partners more wisely by providing better access to agents’ “performance data”, such as the course completion and visa rejection rates of their clients. The government will also strengthen the “fit and proper person” test on college proprietors and prevent them from owning or being owned by education agencies.

Other measures include new “risk indicators” to “inform a monitoring framework” and “drive targeted compliance by education regulators”, Mr Clare said.

Mr O’Connor said the new integrity unit would feature a confidential “tip-off line” for whistleblowers. He said better “digital and data systems” would help the VET regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority (Asqa), to gather intelligence and share it with the police and immigration authorities.

“I will continue to pursue changes to VET legislation necessary to ensure Asqa has the regulatory powers it needs to prevent and remove non-genuine training organisations from the sector,” he said.

Mr Clare said the new arrangements would build on other recent reforms. They include the closure of a loophole allowing students to enrol concurrently with different institutions.

Experts say all these measures are sensible but will require regulatory will, noting that multitudes of foreign students have switched institutions immediately after arriving in Australia despite a rule preventing them from doing so within six months.

And a “risk-based” approach to regulation has failed to prevent flagrant failures, such as thousands of students being stranded without qualifications after their colleges entered administration or liquidation – in one case, just nine months after Asqa had audited and reregistered it.

The Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia lauded the ban on commissions for onshore student transfers, but said the new arrangements needed to be “robust”. Chief executive Troy Williams warned that “unscrupulous agents” could bypass the new rule by rebranding commissions as “marketing fees”.

Sarah Henderson, the shadow education minister, accused the government of “dripping out announcements over the course of a week” after taking months to respond to the Nixon review, which has not been officially released.

“More than 320,000 additional international students arrived in Australia while the Labor government was sitting on this report,” she said. “How many…are involved in unscrupulous behaviour?”

Responses to a separate immigration review are expected soon.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles