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26th Jun 2024

English Australia consultation brief offers a powerful argument in response to proposed legislation

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The Australian government is consulting on its pending legislative framework for international education, including the planned implementation of an enrolment cap in January 2025
  • A comprehensive brief filed by English Australia argues for more extensive consultation, a longer timeline for implementation, and for more targeted enforcement of regulatory compliance

English Australia is the national association for ELT providers in Australia, and earlier this week it offered what some observers have referred to as a "master class" in responding to proposed legislative and policy change for the sector.

The association filed its consultation brief on Australia's Draft International Education and Skills Strategic Framework, and its implementation via the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Quality and Integrity) Bill 2024 (the ESOS Amendment Bill). The brief is very well argued, and may stand as a helpful example for international educators in other major study destinations facing the prospect of significant regulatory change.

The consultation brief sets out that, "The most significant changes introduced by the Framework and the ESOS Amendment Bill are not related to ‘quality and integrity’, were not developed in consultation with the sector, are wholly misaligned to the realities of the sector, and are likely to have dire consequences for the sector and Australia’s economy. English Australia notes that these changes focus on an alarming move away from a free-market economy to a central-government-controlled economy."

The paper urges government to address the small minority of poor-quality providers "via targeted regulatory compliance activity…not through broad industry-wide measures." It then links any integrity issues in the sector to two underlying factors:

  • Visa policies and practices that have "incentivised activity other than study"; and
  • Chronic underfunding of regulatory and visa compliance mechanisms.

In other words, that it was in fact government policy that opened the door to bad actors and the misuse of the study visa programme, and, at the same time, compliance systems are under resourced.

"Government maintained the availability of unlimited work rights, COVID 408 visas, and concurrent eCoEs for an extended period," adds the paper. "As well as attracting parties more interested in economic rather than educational outcomes, this inflated the [net migration] figures by reducing departures. Having now removed these options, government must have the patience to let the impacts work through the system."

On the question of compliance, the paper continues, "Decisive action against identified bad actors should be expedited. English Australia notes that warning letters were sent to 34 CRICOS institutions for undermining the integrity of the Student Visa programme. English Australia also notes that this represents only 2.3% of the 1,479 CRICOS providers and that these warnings gave six months to improve performance. This suggests the size of the integrity issues amounts to 2.3% of the market and that the seriousness of the integrity issue only warrants warnings, not sanctions."

A central aspect of the draft framework is the introduction of an enrolment cap, which is anticipated for January 2025. English Australia strongly opposes the measure, arguing that an annually reset cap, "Would be wholly at odds with the realities of the timeframes involved in students being attracted to, applying for, being accepted into, and commencing a programme, which may have a lead time of 18 months or more. It would be even more at odds with the realities of the timeframes involved in a provider deciding there is a particular level of enrolment demand in a particular course at a particular location and then resourcing the provision of that course by investing in course curriculum and assessment development, and then making available campus, facilities and equipment, appropriate staffing and academic expertise, not to mention planning, resourcing and implementing the student recruitment cycle."

Moving too fast

As is the case in other major study destinations this year, the Australian government is moving very quickly to implement new migration settings, including the draft framework and its related legislative instruments.

English Australia urges the government to delay implementation of the pending legislation until it has carried out meaningful consultation with the international education sector and conducted an economic impact analysis of the proposed regulatory changes.

"English Australia views requesting sector feedback on the impact of a system enabled by a Bill already before parliament, for which government has not even shown the due diligence of commissioning an economic impact study, as representing a significant failure of governance. This is even more true when the sector represents Australia’s 4th largest export and its largest service export, represents a significant proportion of the export earnings on the country’s second largest service export (tourism), employs more than a quarter of a million Australians, funds the lion’s share of research at universities, subsidises the facilities, staffing, and programme development for domestic students’ studies at university, and provides much needed part-time labour force for Australia’s retail, hospitality, childcare, aged-care and construction sectors."

A separate brief from the Group of Eight, a consortium of Australia's top research intensive universities, reflects many of the same themes, noting that, "The Go8 believes that the introduction of these measures will fundamentally compromise Australia’s international education sector and constitutes what is effectively a breach of good faith in the consultation on the Draft Framework…The central 'command-and-control' approach to international education in the Draft Framework and ESOS Amendment Bill represents an unjustifiable risk to the nation. There is no evidence the approach will work – and significant evidence that it will fail. It is not practically implementable by the proposed 2025 start date. It will cause significant financial damage to the sector and the Australian economy. It is founded on a false conflation of international students and Australia’s housing crisis. And it will leave a long-term legacy of political interference in an AUS$48 billion export industry."

Proposing a new direction

The English Australia brief calls on government to focus instead on an urgently needed transition to policies that support the international education sector, including:

  1. A shift to "efficient, transparent, fair, and consistent student visa processing";
  2. A reliance on evidence-based arguments with respect to the impact of international students on Australia's current housing crisis and on the scale and nature of integrity issues in the international education sector;
  3. Removing provisions for an enrolment cap from the ESOS Amendment Bill 2024;
  4. Financial relief for high-quality providers that have been "severely financially strained by recent restrictions on visa grants";
  5. Improved supports for targeted compliance action by regulators.

"English Australia strongly believes that any attempt to force the implementation of limits on enrolments…would put 100s of organisations across the sector at financial and legal peril. English Australia urges government to delay implementation of these changes until at least 1 January 2026 so that meaningful consultation, planning and resourcing can take place both in government and in the sector and so that appropriate amendments to the Bill and Framework can be made."

For additional background, please see:

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