POACHING of foreign fee-paying students by some Australian universities could damage the nation's Aus$3 billion-a-year international education market, according to a member of the federal government's review into the future of higher education.
Lachlan Chipman accused agents who were acting for some Australian universities of offering up to Aus$500 in cash "kickbacks" to foreign students as an attempt to persuade them to switch institutions. He called on the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee to ban poaching and introduce a system of registering agents in Australia and overseas.
Professor Chipman, vice chancellor of Central Queensland University, said foreign students at his own university had been approached by agents acting for other institutions. Some had been offered a "bonus" of up to Aus$500 if they agreed to change universities and even more if they persuaded others to switch as well.
An estimated 60,000 foreign fee-paying students are enrolled in Australia's universities. Their fees add more than Aus$600 million to institutional coffers each year, and the economy benefits by a further Aus$600 million from their spending on living and travel expenses.
More than 100,000 fee-paying students are believed to be attending Australia's universities, technical colleges and schools. Some projections suggest Australia could earn Aus$5 billion from the export education market by 2000.
To encourage agents to recruit students, universities pay from Aus$1,000 to $2,500 commission for each one they attract. While the agents help obtain visas and fill in forms, they can profit by encouraging a student already enrolled to move to another institution.
Bob Goddard, the AVCC's director of international relations, said the committee would be greatly concerned if poaching was occurring. "We have heard stories of this but we have seen no hard evidence," he said. The AVCC had developed a code of ethical practice for universities enrolling foreign students, Mr Goddard said.
While it did not include the issue of poaching, it was clear from the spirit of the code that this was objectionable.
Federal education minister Amanda Vanstone last month rejected a call for an inquiry into claims that some universities had engaged in unethical practices to attract foreign students. But the minister did seek assurances from universities that they would adhere to the AVCC code of practice.
According to evidence compiled by the National Liaison Committee for international students in Australia, many foreign students have encountered corrupt agents. Students had been offered cash inducements to enrol in a certain university rather than others and had been promised reduced fees if they helped enrol other students.
The committee says many students have been guaranteed part-time jobs in Australia, but these have not materialised and they have had to return home.
Phil Honeywood, Victoria's tertiary education minister, raised the issue at a meeting of federal and state education ministers. He called on Senator Vanstone to hold an inquiry to investigate the claims.
Mr Honeywood said he had been told about crooked agents during a recent visit to several Asian countries. Students had been offered prizes such as computers if they arranged for three or four others to enrol at a certain university.
According to the AVCC code, the marketing of education services overseas should be consistent with the maintenance of academic standards and "the safeguarding of the interests of both Australian and international students".
Fay Gale, the AVCC's president, said there had been a small number of minor breaches of the code - a result of universities sometimes having to "play the game pretty hard". "However, the few isolated incidents which have occurred have never been indicative of the way universities have generally conducted themselves," she said.