The first report from the Trade Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade was released last week, setting out 29 recommendations for the government to “rebuild and reset” Australia’s international education sector after the pandemic.
The committee called for tougher oversight of the vocational education and training industry, which has come under scrutiny after evidence emerged linking some colleges recruiting international students to sex trafficking rings.
In its report, the subcommittee called on the government to take “firm action” to address “persistent and deep-seated integrity issues” in private VET colleges. It comes just weeks after the government announced a number of measures to crack down on these institutions, including a new “integrity unit” designed to “weed out” unlawful behaviour among providers.
Australia’s private VET sector has hit back at the report, arguing the changes will damage high quality skills training providers.
Troy Williams, chief executive of ITECA, which represents these colleges, said its members want to improve the sector’s reputation for quality but that parts of the report “lack intellectual merit”.
Suggestions include suspending the ability of colleges to recruit international students if there are issues with their quality or where they offer courses of “limited value” to Australia’s critical skills needs, such as management and leadership.
“What the committee is saying in this context is that if an international student wants to pay their own way to study courses in, for example, project management, Australia doesn’t want them,” Williams said, adding that it will send “the wrong signals to international students”.
Claire Field, a post-secondary education consultant, said the 29 recommendations in the report would be “overwhelmingly positive” for the international education sector if implemented but that some could hurt different providers, including those offering the courses mentioned.
“If implemented this recommendation could have a serious impact on private VET providers – including the many good operators offering diplomas of business and management – and whose students articulate to further study at university,” she said.
Field added that the government should remove courses from the CRICOS register, which allows colleges to recruit international students, if it has data showing problems in specific courses.
“The diplomas are a legitimate study choice for students looking to study in Australia for their own career interests, not solely to help address our critical skill needs,” she said.
The committee also recommended that ASQA, which regulates the sector, should pause new provider applications for courses designed for overseas students for at least 12 months, a move which Williams argues would set back the post-pandemic recovery of the sector.
“Diplomas are a legitimate study choice”
“We are just starting to see the international skills training sector get back on its feet after the Covid-19 pandemic, with several high-quality providers wanting to support international students for the first time,” he said.
But Field said this would be “positive” for existing providers, “essentially limiting competition for a period of time”.
She added that the recommendations to improve the monitoring of existing providers and increased vetting of new providers could also help the sector, as would the suggestion to require new providers to have delivered to domestic students for 12 months before applying for approval to teach international students.
Williams argued the report was “deeply flawed”, arguing that the recommendation VET students should be externally assessed by an independent body or by a provider such as TAFEs “is based on no more than the ideology that says the public provider is best”.
Canberra also recently announced a $12.6 billion five-year National Skills Agreement to increase domestic access to vocational education, with an aim to place TAFEs “at the heart” of the sector.
“From time to time, governments consign to the waste bin of history some of the more unsound recommendations that parliamentary committees make. There are several in this report that should meet this fate,” Williams said.