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Australia: concerns mount over release of agent data

A bill has been passed by the Australian parliament allowing student education outcome data to be made public which can be used to judge the performance of education agencies overseas.

The release of agent data has caused some concerns in the industryAt least 35,000 international students currently study in Sydney and typically, 85% of students use an agency's services. Photo: The PIE News

"It will get rid of the 'fly by night' agencies as they cheapen our industry"

The bill, proposed by the Department for Education and Training, was introduced to improve transparency between education agencies and consumers, but since its announcement it has faced backlash from agents globally.

It will make public PRISMS data, which rates the agents’ students as either ‘complete’ or ‘incomplete’, depending on whether or not they have completed the course of study they had entered the country to undertake.

This data was previously only available to institutions.

The Association of Australian Education Representatives in India, which represents 94 agencies across India, pointed out the unfairness of publishing this data, as it targets offshore agents without taking onshore ‘poaching’ into account.

Agents around the world have told The PIE News they share similar sentiments. AAERI is concerned about the potential impact of the changes as India sent more than 25,000 students to Australia for the 2016/17 academic year.

AAERI president Rahul Gandhi said that the public release of this data will not have the desired effect, due to interference by onshore agents.

“[It] will not reflect the true potential or the true picture, as the onshore agents are poaching the students which are recruited by the offshore agents… understanding the offshore agents’ performance is only possible if the onshore agents are not allowed to recruit the student before completion of their main course,” he said.

“This proposal does not take into account all these complexities of international students and their recruitment process”

The issue raised by Gandhi centres on students who transfer after arrival in Australia, due to the actions of onshore agents who stand to profit from commission paid by a second institution.

A DET spokesperson told The PIE News that “the Department of Education and Training has been in contact with AAERI and agrees that the proposed changes should not have unintended consequences for high quality education agents.”

Other agents said that the publication of this data alone will target the wrong part of the sector.

Ravi Lochan Singh, managing director of Global Reach in India, argues the rules are unfair, as although there are many faults that offshore agents can be held responsible for, issues arising after students arrive in Australia should not be included.

“If the documents are found to [be] fraudulent, [agents] can be held responsible. If the counselling advice is incorrect, they can be held responsible, but not for the fact that the student moved institutions during the two to four years of study onshore or that he or she failed or ‘misbehaved’,” he wrote in a blog.

In a statementthe Brazilian Educational and Language Travel Association said it sees “a great challenge to control student behaviour and decisions after they land in Australia”, and therefore opposes the decision to publish course completion data in this way.

Furthermore, a BELTA spokesperson said offshore agents should be recognised for the important work they do, which on onshore agents do not have to undertake.

“The most important [task]; the challenge to make student and parents confident about the decision to take a 24 hour plane, stay away from family, friends, and the home country, comes from the offshore agent”, the statement read.

“Publishing data as appropriate will promote greater transparency and accountability in educator-agent relationships”

Sonya Singh, managing director of SIEC, said she thinks the changes miss the mark in targeting a real issue in Australian HE.

“This proposal does not take into account all these complexities of international students and their recruitment process,” she said.

“Publishing agent data and relating it to student success publicly is just a simplistic way of shifting the blame rather than addressing real issues of greed and malpractice that goes on in Australia.”

In South Africa, an agent who preferred to remain anonymous said they support the act of publishing agent performance data, but expressed concern that a communication breakdown with the Australian authorities could have a negative impact on outcomes.

“I am very keen to have our outcomes published, as it will get rid of the ‘fly by night’ agencies as they cheapen our industry,” they said.

“I do have some concerns, which will impact this significantly, however, and these are the lack of communication with our local high commission in Pretoria, a lack of training and a lack of wanting to communicate with agencies.”

They went on to say, “the apathy from our current high commission visa section will impact our numbers significantly and contribute to denials, which can potentially be our error but only due to the lack of knowledge and clarification from the visa section at our local embassy.

“If they could just answer our queries, this would help both them and us.”

But Phil Honeywood, CEO of the International Education Association of Australia, said that the publication of data on agents will improve the service for the 85% of international students in Australia who use agents.

“Reporting on agent performance, and publishing data as appropriate, will promote greater transparency and accountability in educator-agent relationships and the wider sector. Students and their families deserve greater insights on the performance of their agents,” he said.

Honeywood acknowledged the issue of malpractice lies with a minority of agents, but insisted they do have a detrimental effect on Australia’s higher education sector, which needs to be combated.

“Although the majority of agents are entirely scrupulous in their recruitment of international students, it is always the unfortunate few who can tarnish both Australia’s and their own professional reputation,” he added.

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