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Australia “risks” social license if problems not addressed – AIEC 2023

The 2023 AIEC conference in Adelaide concluded on October 13, bringing together the theme of vision and transformation.

Photo: The PIE News

The Trade Subcommittee inquiry report is due to be released "imminently"

The event finished as the Australian international education sector anticipates more government policy amendments as well as how new technology can create a sustainable future for the industry.

In his closing remarks, minister for Skills and Training, Brendan O’Connor, emphasised the importance of ensuring that international students feel welcome in Australia and that “their contribution is recognised and celebrated”, a common theme at the conference.

We must make sure there is quality training provided to them and accompanied by a genuine common outcomes once they complete. Australia shares an enduring connection with many nations through their students coming here to study,” he told attendees.

Stakeholders have warned that Australia’s brand will need to be repaired after the country rejected enshrining the rights of Indigenous populations in the constitution. They fear that the result of the referendum makes Australia look less progressive than competitor countries.

The minister also said that recent government announcements are designed to strengthen integrity and ensure quality in the VET sector.

“There is zero tolerance for student exploitation,” he said.

Another common phrase at the event was reference to social license.

First assistant secretary within the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Karen Sandercock, noted early on in the conference that “everyone in this room knows that international education is subject to a social license”.

Debate around housing pressure is about getting solutions led from the sector right, she said.

“I know Study Adelaide, all of its counterparts around the country and individual sectors are doing a lot of work to come up with local solutions that are really creative, innovative and sustainable whilst the government is doing broader work on the housing front to address this problem,” she noted.

“Student accommodation needs are different from other accommodation needs and we need to highlight [that],” she added.

“Student accommodation needs are different from other accommodation needs”

Phil Honeywood, CEO of IEAA, said that Australia is fortunate to have had lot of investment into purpose built student accommodation, unlike some other destination countries.

However, he added that local government planning rules can be limiting for housing providers.

Federal MP for Bruce and co-chair of the Parliamentary Friends of International Education in Australia, Julian Hill, suggested that the sector has “a dilemma”.

“It is ridiculous to blame international students for the country’s housing crisis,” he said.

But in some parts of capital cities, international student numbers “are adding to the demand problem”, he acknowledged.

The Trade Subcommittee inquiry report, which is due to be released imminently, will identify the homestay sector – such as the host on the coast program on the Gold Coast – and PBSA as two areas for improvement.

“Any of the big [accommodation] providers will tell you if they get a block of land in Sydney today, they couldn’t get a student on it for seven years because of the planning barriers,” he said.

Hill warned that the “sector is going to have to prune the tree to save the tree” or risk losing its social license with the Australian public.

He said “exponential growth in the bottom of the private VET market” will be problematic going ahead.

“We do have to question the demand and the growth trajectory,” he said. “It’s good that we’re back to roughly where we were, but the aggregate headline number is not what we should be chasing as a country. We’ve got to look at quality, not quantity.

“We do have to question the demand and the growth trajectory”

“We all know what [exponential growth in the bottom of the private VET market] means,” he said pointing to issues that arose in 2009.

“I personally think we’re going to have to front up to this demand issue and moderate the demand growth or we will lose the social license over this issue. And it’s a part of the sector and we are going to have to prune the tree to save the tree.”

Yet at the same time, O’Connor also spoke about creating opportunities for international students to help fill skills shortages in the VET occupations.

“One way is forging better connections between work visas and students’ course of study,” he said.

“This is an area where Jobs and Skills Australia can help – by providing evidence based advice on linking education providers with the migration system and the labour market.”

The department is also consulting on the best practices, principles and standards for skilled migration, he added. Earlier in the week, minister of education Jason Clare had told the conference that the government is working with the sector to ensure it gets policy changes right.

Questions remain among some in the sector about how measures banning agent commissions and cross-ownership will be work on paper, but Hill acknowledges that “we’ll work through the implementation”.

Managing director of Global Reach, Ravi Lochan Singh, said that the onshore commission ban could take six months to implement as it could be included in the new ESOS act which needs to go through parliament.

On cross-ownership, Lochan Singh said he agrees that there is a conflict of interest when education institutions have stake in education agencies, but added that he “would want [the minister] to begin with asking public universities to divest the shares in ‘the’ education agent”.

The reference to ‘the’ education agent is to IDP, which – while banks make up the majority of shareholders – has Australian universities as investors.

A collection of institutions, including University of New South Wales, Macquarie University, The University of Melbourne, Deakin University and more, are partially invested in the company.

“My guess is that this particular announcement will not be easily applied,” Lochan Singh said. “Maybe never.”

  • AIEC will return in Melbourne in October 2024.

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