Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
13th May 2024

Australian government to set international student cap

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The Australian government has announced a legislative package with a series of new measures for the country’s international education sector
  • They include a cap on new international student enrolments, a prohibition on education providers holding ownership positions in education agencies, a ban on agent commissions for onshore student transfers, and more stringent oversight of education providers and agents alike
  • The government has also provided a framework that elaborates on these measures and sets up a consultation process with the sector and other stakeholders that will unfold in the coming months

UPDATE, 15 MAY 2024: Government statements since 11 May indicate that the implementation date for international enrolment caps will be 1 January 2025 or later. The government has also indicated that caps will be established after "extensive consultations" at the provider-by-provider level.

The Australian government announced over the weekend that it will introduce legislation this week to further "support the integrity and sustainability of the international education sector." An 11 May media release explains that the legislative package represents "the next step in delivering on the objectives of the Government’s Migration Strategy."

The planned legislation will allow Minister for Education Jason Clare to limit the number of new international enrolments that can be offered by Australian providers. The Australian newspaper characterised those new limits as a "soft cap," which is "better than the alternative of a rigid limit on student numbers." That softness, or flexibility, in the cap model arises from a provision that allows providers to recruit above a cap limit if they "establish additional, new supply of purpose-built student accommodation to benefit both international and domestic students and free up pressure on the rental market."

While education stakeholders will need more detail on the implementation of the new cap before drawing any hard conclusions, Australia's international education sector, which has been campaigning for months against any such limits on foreign enrolment.

In addition to the enrolment cap, the planned legislation will introduce a package of additional measures, some of which have been floated by the government previously. Specifically:

  • Education providers will be prevented from holding ownership positions in education agencies;
  • Registrations for new international education providers will be paused for up to 12 months; as will approvals of new courses proposed by existing registered providers;
  • Institutions or schools seeking to register as international education providers will be required to demonstrate "a track record of quality education delivery to domestic students before they are allowed to recruit international students";
  • Dormant provider registrations will be cancelled;
  • Registered providers under regulatory investigation will be banned from recruiting new international students;
  • There will be additional data sharing related to education agents; and
  • Agent commissions on onshore student transfers will be prohibited.

“Most providers do the right thing and are in education and training for the right reasons," said Minister for Skills and Training Brendan O’Connor, in introducing the new measures this weekend. "They will benefit from a high quality and sustainable international education sector, and the Government’s efforts to crack down on non-genuine and unscrupulous actors who undermine integrity and trust in the sector." At the same time, he added, "Because there is no place for dodgy operators who undermine the strong reputation of the sector, we are making it tougher for bottom-feeders to take advantage of international students for a quick buck."

Early sector response

Responding quickly to the government announcement, Universities Australia Chief Executive Luke Sheehy said, “Decades of careful and strategic work by universities and the Government has seen Australia grow to be a leading provider of international education. We can’t let this work go to waste…We will be working closely with the Government to co-design the policy settings needed to give the international education sector a strong and sustainable footing from which to grow into the future.”

Phil Honeywood, the CEO of the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA), added that, "Under the [pending legislation], the Federal Government is looking to allocate a limit on the number of new overseas student enrolments available to each CRICOS [Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students] registered provider.

While stakeholder consultations are being offered, this latest measure will send all the wrong messages, yet again, of Australia’s reliability as a welcoming study destination country. Coming on top of the recently announced changes to financial capability requirements, visa processing slowdowns and backlogs, prospective students and our education agents will feel incredibly let down. Other measures, such as big increases in student visa fees, are also anticipated."

"Given that importance, any mix of policy settings must be considered, and nuanced. If the problems are neither simple nor one-dimensional then the solutions won’t be either," said Group of Eight Chief Executive Vicki Thomson. "Consultation will be crucial to ensure we get the settings right."

Framework for consultation

In their joint release over the weekend, Minister for Education Jason Clare, Minister for Skills and Training Brendan O'Connor, and Minister for Home Affairs Clare O'Neil also released a draft International Education and Skills Strategic Framework. The Framework elaborates on each component of the pending legislation as outlined above, and sets the stage for a government-industry consultation on the implementation of these new measures and other longer-term directions in Australia's international education sector.

"The Government will consult with the sector on all aspects of the Framework over the coming months and release the final Framework later this year," said the joint release, while Minister O'Neil added that, "“With international student visa grants back to pre-pandemic levels, the focus now shifts to ensuring numbers in the sector are managed more strategically over the long-term.”

The Framework sets out a broad range of consultative questions, including:

  • "Are there further reforms governments should consider that will improve the quality and integrity of the sector?"
  • "What more can providers do to improve the integrity of the international education sector?"
  • "What factors should inform government’s approach to allocating international student enrolments across sectors, providers, and locations in Australia?"

"This Strategic Framework marks a significant shift for Australia’s international education sector," concludes the draft Framework paper. "Government invites views from the sector and interested parties on the issues raised ahead of finalising the Strategic Framework later in 2024."

"The Government is committed to the careful management of Australia’s international education sector, and to strengthening its quality, integrity and reputation. We seek to shape a sector which is sustainable in the long-term and which plays a leading role in delivering on Australia’s national objectives. Enhancing the quality and integrity of the sector, strongly aligning education outcomes with areas of skills needs, and continuing to build our innovative delivery models are just some of the key measures that will help advance Australia’s position as a world leader in education."

There is little to argue with in those statements. But even so, sector stakeholders will reasonably enough wonder about the nature of the upcoming consultation. That this week's announcement of an enrolment cap (and related measures) came unexpectedly over a weekend – and with a framework already in place – will leave many to question if the government has set the stage for a real collaborative consultation or has simply laid down a roadmap for further reforms.

For additional background, please see:

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