The report by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, which stems from last year’s inquiry, made four recommendations for more stringent agent requirements.
“A number of international students alleged education agents were operating unlawfully”
Among its findings, the committee recommended the establishment of a public register of agents, annual reviews of agreements, a demerit system, and the creation of an Immigration Assistance Complaints Commissioner.
“During the course of this inquiry the committee received representations from a number of international students with evidence alleging that education agents were operating in an unlawful and unethical manner,” the report read.
“While education agents were not the primary focus of this inquiry, the committee considered that the significant amount of evidence provided by submitters warranted a closer examination of this issue.”
The recommendations received a cautious response from Australian industry stakeholders, with Robert Parsonson, representative for the International Student Education Agents Association, welcoming the bulk of the findings while calling for care in their implementation.
“We’ve got to be very careful about trying to slam an industry to get rid of a minority of bad practising agents,” he said.
“But we agree that there are some and we agree that work needs to be done to expose bad practice and rectify it,” he affirmed.
The committee also recommended stronger requirements before an agent can sign an agreement with a provider. Those include completing a government recognised agent training course, having a minimum English proficiency of IELTS 7, undergoing a National Police Check and not having had an agreement cancelled in the previous five years.
“We’ve got to be very careful “
While in favour of many of the recommendations, Parsonson told The PIE News that elements of the suggested requirements could unfairly impact some education agents.
“The written agreement cancellation [requirement], that’s way too broad,” he said.
“Agreements are cancelled for all different reasons, common of which is not sending enough students or just inaction. We think that’s not exactly fair or actually improves anything.”
If implemented, the recommendations as they currently stand would also apply to offshore education agents, which Parsonson said would not be practical for police checks.
“Offshore, it’s out of jurisdiction,” he noted. “You can do it for people who are onshore, but if they’ve got a record in another country, we’re not going to pick that up.”
Australia does have existing treaties with many nations, including India and Malaysia – a nation highlighted in the report – which allow for cooperation on criminal matters and police mutual assistance, but it is not clear if these will assist in the proposed checks.
“We have to really find a way forward… we’ve been waiting long enough”
The inquiry is the latest attempt in Australia to provide further scrutiny around education agents, after former education minister pushed an industry-led agent integrity framework in 2015.
“The appetite by the industry to run their own regulatory framework was not there and we don’t discern it’s there currently,” IEAA chief executive Phil Honeywood said.
“On that basis, if the current government, or an incoming government, really want to tackle this [they] have to look at the policy initiatives.”
Speaking with The PIE, Honeywood added that policy must develop further before the recommendations would receive IEAA’s backing, and urged higher focus on onshore agents in light of incidents of student churn.
“The most important issue is onshore agents, and how we can better regulate the behaviour of agents who are taking up to 40% commission by poaching students, often off the provider who did the right thing,” he said.
“We have to really find a way forward, to better regulate [and] to have some punitive measures against badly behaving onshore agents. And we’ve been waiting long enough for that to happen.”
Concurrent to the agent inquiry recommendations, the Department of Education and Training is presently considering how it will release agent performance data in mid-2019.