Australia expands regulatory oversight of education agents and announces new integrity measures for VET
- The Australian government has announced a series of new measures designed to combat fraud and exploitation in the country’s student visa system
- Agent commissions on student transfers between Australian institutions or schools will now be banned
- Education agents will also be barred from holding an ownership stake in an Australian education provider
- The government is taking steps to strengthen monitoring of the system with a particular focus on identified risk indicators, including student attendance
- A new integrity unit is being established within the VET regulatory authority, and with expanded powers to ensure compliance and take action for non-compliance among VET providers
Earlier this year, the Australian government commissioned former Victorian police commissioner Christine Nixon to conduct a "rapid review into the exploitation of Australia's visa system". The report, which was filed with government in March 2023, has not been publicly released, but a copy was leaked recently by an Australian media outlet.
The report offers seven broad findings, including Finding #3, which sets out that, "The regulation of education agents must be considered, and the regulation of education providers strengthened to stop the exploitation of the system".
"Approximately 75% of international students obtain the assistance of an education agent (many of whom are based overseas) for research, enrolling, and applying for a visa in Australia," explains the report. "While education agents are recognised as having an important role in recruiting overseas students for the Australian market, the regulators currently play no part in the supervision of agents."
"Instead, the regulatory onus is placed on education providers. Registered education providers must ensure the agents they deal with do not engage in false or misleading conduct, and providers must take corrective action or terminate their relationship with an agent who engages in any unethical recruitment practices."
This section of the report also highlights issues within the vocational education and training (VET) sector in particular.
"Significant challenges are also recognised, particularly in the VET sector, with regard to non-genuine providers and collusion between providers and their agents. There are currently around 800 VET providers of international education. The VET sector is more dispersed, and there is more churn with providers entering and exiting the market. The volume of VET providers necessitates [sector regulatory authority Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA)] risk-based regulatory approach, and while delivery to international students including detection and deterrence of non-genuine providers has been identified as one of ASQA's regulatory 2022/23 risk priorities, ASQA's primary focus is on achieving quality education outcomes rather than deterring and disrupting visa exploitation."
Speaking at the National Press Club on 3 October 2023, Minister for Skills and Training Brendan O'Connor was quick to point out that these concerns are concentrated with a small group of VET providers, numbering "more than 12 but less than 100".
Following on from anti-fraud measures announced last month to end concurrent Confirmations of Enrolments (COEs) and to scrap the Pandemic Event Visa, the Australian government has made a series of announcements this week in a further response to the findings of the Nixon report.
Transfer commissions and agent ownership to be banned
In a joint announcement on 2 October 2023, the Minister for Education Jason Clare, Minister for Skills and Training Brendan O'Connor, and Minister for Home Affairs Clare O'Neil set out a series of measures targeted to education agents.
First, the ministers announced a prohibition on agent commissions on student transfers between providers in Australia "to remove incentives for unscrupulous agents and providers to 'poach' students".
Second, they explained that the government will shortly amend the Education Services for Overseas Students Act (ESOS) to explicitly "prevent cross-ownership of businesses between education providers and education agents".
Finally, the ministers also described plans for a strengthened monitoring framework to better ensure compliance on the part of education providers, especially with regard identified "risk indicators" such as tracking and reporting student attendance. (This reflects that poor or non-attendance is a risk factor for fraud that was clearly identified in the Nixon report.)
The ministers added that, "Providers will be given greater access to agent performance data such as student completion rates and visa rejection rates. These benchmarks will help providers choose quality education agents as partners."
Minister Clare added that, "The Nixon Review identified the need to increase monitoring and compliance in the international education sector and the Government is responding. The Government will outline further measures to crack down on dodgy and unscrupulous players in the international education sector in the next few days.”
A new integrity monitoring unit for VET
Indeed, the very next day, Minister O'Connor announced a "compliance blitz" targeted to the VET sector. In his 3 October speech at the National Press Club, the minister set out plans for a new Integrity Unit within ASQA. Backed by AUS$38 million new funding, which is roughly equivalent to 60% of ASQA'a current budget, this new unit will, "identify and address threats to the integrity of VET and improve student protections."
Minister O'Connor added that, "A new confidential tip-off line will be established, giving a safe and confidential avenue for potential whistle-blowers to alert the regulator to serious allegations of non-compliance and fraudulent practices. We will also improve ASQA’s technology to improve intelligence gathering and to more effectively detect and prevent unlawful conduct."
Commenting on the announcement, industry consultant Claire Field observed that, "Most private international VET providers are ethical and do the right thing by their students, and that is why the government’s response is welcome – because it is so tightly targeted.
And now it is in ASQA’s hands to ensure they also target their regulatory response…Let’s hope they focus on weeding out the unethical and low quality providers and not on a ‘one size fits all’ approach."
Additional measures to come
Referring to the 2 October announcements around agent transfer commissions and agent ownership of education providers, Minister O'Neil indicated that the government was prepared to take additional steps to combat fraud and exploitation within the Australian visa system.
“This is the first of many announcements…to restore integrity to international education and to our migration system," she said. “The party is over, the rorts [ed: fraudulent practices] and loopholes that have plagued this system will be shut down.”
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