Coronavirus pandemic spawns a poachers’ picnic Down Under

No longer able to recruit from overseas, some colleges pay ‘extortionate’ commissions to recruit from their competitors

July 10, 2020
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Rampant poaching by unregulated education agents has left Australian higher education providers with a “diabolical choice” as they struggle to outlast the Covid-19 pandemic.

Former international education bureaucrat Julian Hill said reputable private colleges were “deeply concerned” about “bottom feeder” agents capitalising on competitor colleges’ desperation after Australia closed its borders.

“Do they effectively succumb to extortion, and start paying 40 to 50 per cent commissions to keep their cash flow going?” asked Mr Hill, now a Labor member of federal parliament. “Or do they resist, and watch students leave?

“It’s a very difficult choice. If they succumb, the only way they can survive is to cut teaching weeks [and] teacher quality and raise the number of students in classes – things they don’t want to do because they know where it leads.”

Twenty per cent of the overseas students enrolled in Australian institutions are currently marooned offshore, according to the latest statistics from the federal Education Department.

Higher education has been disproportionately affected, accounting for 72 per cent of the displaced students, with Chinese university students comprising about half the overall total.

With little sign that they will be allowed back any time soon, some providers are resorting to extreme measures to lure students away from other colleges and universities. Australia-based agents are exploiting the situation, according to the head of a Sydney-based college chain who asked not to be named.

He said that what used to be the “desperate upper limit” of commissions was now becoming the norm, in a repeat of the spiralling overheads that had afflicted the sector during the last international education downturn a decade ago.

“Agents are seeing a great opportunity to ask whatever they want,” he said. “They do as they please and undermine every initiative of colleges and government to drive quality and protect the reputation of the industry.”

Students switching institutions usually need to obtain new visas. Department of Home Affairs statistics show that over the four months after Australia began closing its borders, 60 per cent of applications for new visas to study higher education were lodged within Australia – compared with 33 per cent over the previous six months.

International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) head Phil Honeywood said there had been “too many cases” of certain private providers offering “outrageously high commissions” for onshore agents to poach students from other colleges.

He said that in the absence of any regulatory mechanism specifically targeting education agents, “this could get worse before it gets better”.

Several years ago, the IEAA advocated for international education agents to be covered by a voluntary regulatory framework, but the campaign faltered in the face of opposition from representative groups.

Mr Hill acknowledged the difficulties in regulating overseas-based agents. But he said a registration scheme covering Australia-based operators would be straightforward and the government already had the data it needed to establish such a scheme.

He said a registry, unlike a full licensing model, would be a “light-touch regulatory response” with reporting requirements calibrated to agencies’ size. “But it would provide a hook for complaints against unethical agents – effectively, commercial extortion – whereby an agent could be deregistered.

“We have licensing or registration arrangements for financial brokers and real estate agents. I don’t think Australian education should be any different.”

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