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Concerns rise as DET prepares to release agent data

Australia’s Department of Education and Training has released a policy paper seeking feedback from international education stakeholders as it prepares to release comparative agent performance data publicly, but experts warn the information could create unfair competition.

The looming publication of agent data continues to draw the ire of agents. Photo: Carlos Muza/UnsplashThe looming publication of agent data continues to draw the ire of agents. Photo: Carlos Muza/Unsplash

Agents handled 73.6% of total enrolments in 2017

“It appears that the data collection process as described, would be incomplete and invalid”

The Publication of Education Agent Performance Data paper, which is seeking feedback until February 8, aims to help providers better manage their responsibilities under the changed National Code, which handed them full responsibility for the actions of their agents.

“To support providers to meet their legislative obligations with regard to agents, the department has begun providing performance data on each agent a provider has engaged to represent them,” the paper reads.

“Providing greater transparency of agent performance through publication of data relating to student enrolment and visa outcomes will support stakeholders and encourage better practice in the international education system overall.”

The data, which includes student enrolment outcomes as well as visa application outcomes, was provided to institutions in May 2018, however, the paper asks for feedback for the public release of comparative data, across points including data, variables, publication format, and timing.

No stranger to controversy, the agent performance policy paper and the unknowns it seeks to address have caught the ire of agents and experts.

A staunch opponent against publishing agent data, the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India in a statement welcomed the goal of greater transparency but said that information collected and provided should be in the same format for both students and education providers.

“Agencies will tell students that their competitor is lower ‘ranked'”

“It appears that the data collection process as described would be incomplete and invalid, and therefore unfair on serious players in the Australian education agent industry,” its statement said.

“As such, we believe it will not properly serve the overall objectives and intent of this policy, which is to regulate the education agent fraternity at large.”

Among its grievances, AAERI criticised the potential for onshore student churn to negatively affect agent data, while also questioning why the same performance data was not published on education providers.

If not adequately addressed, the organisation warned agent publication could have dire consequences for Australian international education.

“We also need to highlight the impact a resultant downturn in international student numbers would have… if legitimate education agents decide to turn their backs on Australia and take their business and the billions of dollars in foreign exchange that they generate… elsewhere.”

Founder and chief executive of student management platform EducationLink Raphael Arias echoed AAERI’s concerns, saying publication of agent performance data was “risky”.

“If not presented in the correct format it may mislead students on thinking an agency is not as good as another one; for example, a larger agency will have more visa refusals due to its volume,” he said.

“We also need to highlight the impact… if legitimate education agents decide to turn their backs on Australia”

Speaking with The PIE News, he argued the data could also be used for marketing purposes between education agents, potentially creating a market distortion.

“If I was an agent, and I knew I had no or low visa rejections, I would advertise this as loud as I could,” he said.

“And definitely, agencies will tell students that their competitor is lower ‘ranked’.”

According to DET, agents have become an increasingly more important part of Australia’s international education landscape, handling 74% of total enrolments in 2017 – an 8% increase from 2013.

As the proportion of enrolments has increased, government concerns over fraudulent behaviour have also escalated, coming to a head in early 2017 during the Tu Futuro en Australia scandal.

The event, which saw a Brisbane-based agent flee the country with up to $1 million in student fees, directly preceded the government passing the bill to release the data publicly.

Full publication of agent performance data is expected in mid-2019, after a trial period of selected agencies.

More information on the potential changes is available on The PIE Blog.

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