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Australian universities renew calls to limit student “poaching”

The Australian government should extend the time an international student must spend at the institution they initially join before they can switch providers, universities have reiterated. 

Currently, students must complete six months of study before they can transfer to a different institution. Photo: Pexels

Australia’s decision to uncap the amount of hours students can work has created concerns around "genuine" students

Queensland University of Technology and the University of Wollongong have recommended that the government restrict transfers for international students.  

Currently, students must complete six months of study before they can transfer to a different institution and the course they transfer to must be the same level as their previous one. But some universities say that six months isn’t long enough as students are switching to cheaper providers as soon as possible. 

“Once in Australia, there are a range of legitimate reasons for students to move between providers and this process is well established in visa regulations and processes,” said Neil Fitzroy, general manager, marketing and sales, university partnerships Australia at Navitas.

“The majority of providers work collaboratively and in the interests of the student to ensure this process is transparent and supportive.

“There are a small number of providers, agents and students, that seek to use this system to transfer once onshore for reasons other than educational outcomes. Whilst this is a small minority, it undermines the integrity of the system.”

Universities have suggested that tightening controls would ensure that incoming international students are “genuine”, as Australia’s decision to uncap the amount of hours students from overseas can work has created concerns around students enrolling for the sole intention of securing work visas. 

“Whilst this is a small minority, it undermines the integrity of the system”

In a recent submission to a parliamentary inquiry, the University of Wollongong said, “One solution to better control the quality of applicants coming to study to Australia would be to tighten the onshore movement of international students by restricting university transfers.”

Queensland University of Technology also recommended that the government should extend the requirement to 12 months in order to “reduce the onshore withdrawal/transfer poaching market”.

“The recruitment of international students within Australia is highly competitive and QUT absolutely supports the right of students to make informed choices about their course of study and provider,” a spokesperson from QUT told The PIE. 

“However, a consequence of the policy of permissible transfer of providers (after six months of the principal program) is that it can lead to commercial behaviour that prioritises withdrawals and transfers for provider gain over student wellbeing and graduate outcomes. QUT does not engage in this behaviour.

“Additionally, international students are cost-conscious and the promise of access to our economy alongside the lure of transferring to a less expensive provider to reduce their costs across the life of their study in Australia is no doubt appealing.”

In 2022, the then-called Department of Education, Skills and Employment said transferring between providers “is not common”, with approximately 5-6% of all international students choosing to change providers since 2019.

Despite this, discussions around student transfers have been ongoing for years, predating the pandemic. Fitzroy said Nativas was “not aware of any significant change in the behaviour of students, agents or providers in recent months”.

Universities were given a chance to have their say on the topic in the 2022 Education Services for Overseas Students review, with Universities Australia and Innovative Research Universities both recommending at the time that the six-month period remain the same. 

Speaking to The PIE this week, Paul Harris, executive director at IRU, said, “The IRU recommends retaining the six-month restriction on course changes for international students, while retaining flexibility for universities to respond to genuine student circumstances. 

“This helps to protect the sector’s reputation for quality and integrity by helping to protect institutions against poaching strategies and lowering the risk of non-genuine students. We also recommend that any visa risk should switch to the new provider, following a change of institution.”

If students wish to transfer before six months, they must be ‘released’ by their current institution, but there are suggestions that some students are transferring without permission. 

In a 2022 submission to the ESOS review, the University of Melbourne recommended that the Australian government should “ensure proper enforcement of the requirement for students to be released by the primary institution to facilitate a transfer within the restricted period”. 

The ESOS review was not completed due to the change of government in Australia in May 2022, but the new government is consulting with providers via a parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s international education sector and a review of the country’s migration system.

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