As well as issues with its auditing processes, reporting from Australia’s Nine Media also exposed providers’ alleged role in allowing trafficking of international students.
“As a former VET regulator I know firsthand that this has been a problem in Australia in the past so I was appalled but unsurprised to see it re-emerge as an issue,” Claire Field, an advisor to the tertiary education sector in Australia, told The PIE News.
“With the current relaxation of the limits on the hours students can work it’s more difficult for the training quality regulator, ASQA, to be confident students are attending classes and actively engaged in their learning,” she continued.
Investigations into allegations of trafficking are ongoing, and the Australian Federal Police did not immediately respond to The PIE’s request for comment.
In 2021/22, according to ASQA’s latest report, the regulator processed 770 new registrations and re-registrations – however, only 356 audits – performance assessments – were actually undertaken.
In addition, 244 non-compliance cases were filed – and while the severity of all the separate non-compliance instances is unknown, ASQA said in its annual report that it “assessed it was not necessary or proportionate to use more directive powers or exercise sanctions in 121 cases”.
“Sixty four providers responded to issues of non-compliance identified by ASQA by providing additional evidence within 20 days from receiving… the report. An average of 50% of [those] providers… returned to compliance during the period,” the report reads.
“It begs the question whether the original decision not to impose a formal sanction was the right one”
Field stressed that this data means that only half of those providers returned to compliance, despite ASQA “thought they could be left to fix things on their own”.
“It begs the question whether the original decision not to impose a formal sanction was the right one and whether these providers realise it’s serious that they address their non-compliances?” Field said.
It also raises the question as to whether some providers have, as such, slipped through the cracks and been allowed to “turn a blind eye” to student absence.
ASQA recently transitioned to a system in which it encourages “more self-assurance” amongst providers across the country, but Jenny Dodd, TAFE Directors Australia’s CEO, said in the organisation’s latest newsletter that it may not be enough.
“It is not enough for the regulator to remind providers of their responsibilities. That is like keeping the whole class in because one person did the wrong thing. Quality RTOs know their responsibilities,” Dodd wrote.
“In Australia there are approximately 3,829 training providers – 29 are TAFEs or TAFE divisions of dual sector universities. That leaves 3,800 training providers which are non-government owned,” she pointed out.
As observed by Phill Bevan in The Mandarin, at the current rate, “it would take the regulator almost 11 years to audit all 3,829 VET providers just once”.
“The latest annual report by the national vocational education and training regulator tabled in parliament [in early November] shows an agency grappling with reform and struggling to manage service levels, as Australia’s VET sector’s issues continue and widespread industry skills shortages intensify,” Bevan said in his piece.
“There are also questions about whether ASQA’s responses to non-compliance are sufficient”
Bevan also told The PIE that in the recently released census of the Australian Public Service, ASQA was voted the worst agency to work for for the second year running.
Meanwhile, reporting from the Sydney Morning Herald’s Trafficked found that over a dozen Australian education providers for international students were identified as allegedly “corrupt” by investigators.
“While I support ASQA’s move to a stronger focus on provider self-assurance, it appears that their risk framework is not working as well as it should – missing the providers involved in sex trafficking despite this being a longstanding risk in the sector.
“There are also questions about whether ASQA’s responses to non-compliance are sufficient to lift the level of compliance in the sector,” Fields said.
“A number of senior ASQA staff with deep expertise in the VET sector appear to have moved on in the last couple of years and it’s unclear if their replacements have the knowledge of VET needed to effectively regulate the sector.
“The Department of Home Affairs and ASQA both need to be much more vigilant – Home Affairs in terms of better checking the bona fides of students and the education agents they use, and ASQA in terms of checking the bona fides of providers,” she added
ASQA responded to The PIE’s request for comment on November 18, saying: “ASQA applies a broad range of education, monitoring and enforcement strategies in order to achieve its regulatory objectives.
“Our regulatory activities make full use of intelligence and data so that the community can be confident that our activities are targeted based on analysis of risk. ASQA is acutely aware that poor quality practices by a small number of providers can have the capacity to inflict significant harm on students, and undermine the confidence in an otherwise dedicated and committed sector and damage Australia’s reputation for quality educational outcomes.
“We focus our regulatory effort in areas of greatest risk and continue to take regulatory action through a range of escalating tools to enforce compliance, and where appropriate work in cooperation with law enforcement and intelligence agencies, to protect the integrity of VET in Australia,” it added.