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16th May 2013

Australian private-sector providers continue to call for visa reforms

In most destination countries, immigration policy is the area where government policy and process improvements can have the most dramatic impact on international student enrolments. Perhaps it is no surprise then that - in the wake of the challenges that began to rock the Australian international education sector in 2008–2009 - some of the highest-profile and most anticipated government moves to counter declining enrolments have been with respect to streamlining visa processing for international students. Following the 2011 Knight Review, in early 2012 the Australian government moved to ease visa processing for international students bound for Australian universities. Only months later, this streamlined visa processing - a package of reforms that ease assessment levels and dramatically reduce processing times for visa applicants - was also extended to selected private colleges and TAFEs (Technical and Further Education colleges). Private-sector providers, meanwhile, are still waiting. And while they wait they are at a distinct competitive disadvantage relative to other Australian institutions with respect to visa processing times for incoming students.

"Agents won't deal with us"

A March 2013 item in The Australian sums up the situation as follows:

“The most recent official statistics show the different fortunes of private higher education and public universities. In the first half of last year, undergraduate student commencements in private higher education and TAFE fell 4.2% while the figure for public universities rose 4.6%. The International College of Management, Sydney, saw commencing student load fall 41.5%. Managing Director Frank Prestipino blamed the strong currency, lack of streamlined visa processing and competition from public universities with uncapped, taxpayer-subsidised places. 'Agents (who recruit overseas students) won't deal with us, in terms of having to spend six to nine weeks to process a standard visa versus a streamlined visa,’ he said.”

In March of this year, Martin Cass, the chair of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training (ACPET), expressed the industry’s frustration in an open letter to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard that called for an extension of the country’s visa reforms to non-university providers. “After the turmoil that hit the sector in 2008–2009 your government acted to make it simpler for international students to come to Australia and study at universities, but not at institutions like mine," wrote Cass. “Your government’s reluctance to support small, niche education providers and their students is alarming.” ACPET is the leading body for private colleges in Australia and its letter singles out a recommendation from 2013’s Chaney Report that calls for streamlined visa processing for all sectors of Australian education. Current and recent Australian immigration ministers have promised a further announcement on streamlined visa processing in the near future but these assurances come on the heels of some months of anticipation within the Australian industry - stretching back to November 2012 - of an “imminent” decision by government. The Australian, however, quotes ACPET chief executive Claire Field as noting that the government has stalled on its own reforms.

“Good providers are going to the wall and Australia is losing substantial export income," said Field. "The industry is on its knees as a result of government inaction."

Risky business?

The heart of the issue appears to be a perception that easing visa processing much beyond the university sector could be a risky business. The streamlined processing now available to universities and others in Australia comes with some additional responsibilities for receiving institutions, particularly with respect to student quality, reporting to government, and other quality controls. The university sector in Australia is composed of a relatively small number of institutions that are in turn relatively easy to monitor, regulate, and hold accountable against the provisions of the reforms. The government’s confidence of its ability to similarly ensure compliance for other sectors with larger numbers of institutions, such as private colleges, appears to be a factor in the months-long delays in further action on streamlining Australian visa processing. Iain Watt, the Australian government’s former senior education representative in China, is quoted on this question in the aforementioned Australian article:

“[Watt] conceded an argument for extending the post-study work visas to ‘the higher end of the VET sector’, but it would be too risky to broaden streamlined visa processing beyond universities. ‘To let in a whole lot of students and be publicly wiped off the list would be disastrous to (a university's) reputation and just not worth it. If you're a private VET provider you could very well make a business decision that you can make an absolute fortune in two years before (the Immigration Department) catches up with you.’”

Meanwhile, the country’s private colleges continue to argue for a level playing field as in the request with which Cass closed his recent open letter to the Prime Minister: “I ask you to act on the advice you have received and to extend improved visa processing arrangements to international students in non-university providers, rather than seeking to only reward large, homogenous public institutions.”

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