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29th Aug 2023

Australia takes action on fraud in student visa system

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The Australian government has closed a loophole in the student visa system that was allowing some international students to switch from “genuine study to an arrangement designed to facilitate access to work in Australia”
  • The current action revolves around a policy that has allowed students to hold “concurrent COEs” (Confirmations of Enrolments) and to effectively transfer out of reputable higher education and vocational training institutions to inexpensive, private colleges
  • The tightening up of immigration processes will be complemented by more scrutiny and oversight of the vocational sector to weed out unethical operators
  • Going forward, international students will need to prove they have more savings than in the past to obtain a visa

In a 26 August 2023 announcement, the Australian government set out a series of measures to guard the reputation and standing of Australia’s international education sector. Effective immediately, the government is:

  • “Closing a loophole” in immigration policy that allowed “education providers to shift international students who have been in Australia for less than six months from genuine study to an arrangement designed to facilitate access to work in Australia.” That loophole was related to students being able to access “concurrent COEs” (Confirmations of Enrolments) for programmes in two sectors (higher education and vocational training [VET]). As of now, institutions are no longer able to create concurrent COEs. “Our message is clear,” said Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil. “The party is over, the [frauds] and loopholes that have plagued this system will be shut down.”
  • Increasing by 17% the amount of savings international students must have to get an Australian study visa to reflect higher costs of living in Australia ($24,505 in savings will now be needed). This is intended to ensure students are not pressed into exploitative work when studying due to financial desperation.
  • Applying more scrutiny to “high-risk cohorts” (of prospective students) that tend to submit a higher volume of fraudulent applications.
  • “Considering consider using its powers under Section 97 of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act (ESOS Act) to issue suspension certificates to high-risk education providers. A suspension certificate means providers would not be able to recruit international students.”

If the government does use its suspension powers, it would be the first time ever. That it would consider doing so is tied to its concern that “more than 200 providers currently have visa refusal rates higher than 50%.”

VET sector to be more closely monitored

The government will also provide the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) with more powers to regulate those who manage, oversee, and control Registered Training Organisations (RTOs). RTO owners will have to comply with "Fit and Proper Person" Requirements in order to register their business and operate. The intention, says the government, is to “eliminate the minority of non-genuine operators that profit from students and fail to provide the standards of education and training that students deserve.”

Brendan O’Connor, Minister for Skills and Training, issued a media statement saying: “These changes reflect our determination to strengthen the integrity of the VET sector … 9 out of 10 future jobs will require a post-secondary qualification and VET is a vital pathway to secure jobs … we are committed to lifting perceptions of VET and this is an important step to do that.

Welcome news for stakeholders and quality providers

The context for the government announcement is the Australian international education sector’s rising concern that immigration loopholes have been encouraging non-genuine students to come to Australia.

Of the tightening of immigration measures, Minister for Education Jason Clare stated:

“International student numbers are almost back to where they were before the pandemic. That’s a good thing. International education is an extraordinarily valuable national asset.

But there are also challenges in international education. As students have come back, so have some dodgy and unscrupulous players who are trying to take advantage of them.

This change will work to stop predatory ‘second’ providers from enrolling students before they have studied for the required six months at their first provider.

This will help ensure the integrity of one of our biggest exports while cracking down on dodgy operators.”

“Course-hopping” and “ghost colleges”

The trend the government is working at ending is known as “course hopping”: a student gets a visa to study in a higher education programme or reputable VET programme but ends up being able to shift easily to an inexpensive, private college. Sometimes students do not even attend classes in the second type of institution, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as a “ghost college”. The goal in course hopping is for the student to be able to take up work in Australia rather than his/her stated intention of studying.

Course hopping has been enabled by the ability of students to get two COEs (Confirmations of Enrolment) rather than one on the same visa – i.e., “concurrent enrolments.” The Australian government found that “in the first half of 2023, 17,000 concurrent enrolments were created, compared to approximately 10,500 for the same period in 2019 and 2022 combined.”

Ravi Lochan Singh of Global Reach summarised why concurrent enrolments can be so problematic in Koala International Education News:

  • What should occur – A student arrives for a bachelor’s degree at a university but seeks to move to a diploma at a private VET provider. The initial visa has condition 8202 (which requires that a student maintains enrolment in a registered course that is the same Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) level as, or higher than, the course for which they were granted their visa). Therefore, to move to the diploma at the private vet, a new visa should be required.
  • What is occurring – What happens is that once [the student is] onshore, an agent organises to cancel the original study plan and enrols the student in two programmes – a VET diploma as well as a bachelor’s degree that may start two years hence and obtains two COEs [Confirmations of Enrolment]. There is no need for the bachelor’s degree to be packaged with the diploma. And thanks to this, Home Affairs is not able to apply 8202. PRISMS shows the current diploma course and the future COE for the bachelor’s degree.”

Mr Singh added that:

“The onshore agents and the colleges have realised that it is much easier if the student simply applies for a fresh visa for the diploma onshore. The student who would have definitely been refused the visa offshore is nearly certain to get the visa for the same course onshore and this is evident from the visa success rate.”

He pointed to Instagram posts showing so-called “ghost colleges” with no students in them and said that he had been told “25 of the colleges are owned directly or indirectly to agents in South Asia and this is a clear conflict of interest.”

More tightening is imminent

Another bone of contention is the fact that a visa subclass introduced in the pandemic, subclass 408, has not yet been phased out. That visa is a renewable 12-month document allowing students to work in any sector of the economy, for more than one employer if desired.

Phil Honeywood, CEO of International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) told Times Higher Education that along with the changes announced already, “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.”

A trend across leading destinations?

Like the Australian government, the Canadian government has had cause to review whether its international education sector is regulated sufficiently. Canada’s international enrolments have been growing rapidly, and there were 30% more foreign students in the country in 2022 than in the previous year.

The country’s immigration department, IRCC, is currently exploring a new Trusted Institution framework that could be in place by 2024, with the intention of significantly raising the bar for Canadian education institutions hosting international students. IRCC has yet to release details of the Trusted Institution framework, but the core concept is to compel Canadian schools, colleges, and universities to “demonstrate that they are reliable partners with regard to sustainable intake, identifying genuine students, monitoring and reporting on their compliance, and providing a safe and enriching experience for their international students.”

For additional background, please see:

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