The report found the students enrolled in private vocational colleges that were owned by members of the network, allowing them to cover up non-attendance by those on student visas.
According to Australian newspaper The Age, some sex workers had paid agents to help them get into Australia while others may have been trafficked. There have also been concerns that last year’s lifting of the 40-hour fortnightly limit on working as an international student in Australia could have driven exploitation.
The work limit is set to be capped once again from 30 June 2023.
The Nixon report, which has not yet been released, called on the government to consider regulating onshore and offshore agents. The Albanese government has yet to set a date for the release of the report but key findings have been shared with Australian media.
It comes as parliamentary hearings focusing on Australia’s international education sector continue, with a session on May 15 discussing the practicalities of agent regulation.
“The current approach, which has been years long of letting providers oversee agents, has comprehensively failed,” said Julian Hill, MP and member of the joint standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade.
“These stories just keep coming up, students are being exploited particularly at the bottom end.
“We’ve got to break this business model of dodgy agents and dodgy providers exploiting people,” he said.
Representatives from the Department of Education highlighted the challenges of regulating offshore agents outside of Australia’s jurisdiction, but Hill rebuffed that there are examples of where offshore activity is regulated, such as modern slavery legislation.
Sharon Cook, national president of ISANA International Education Association, called for “greater transparency to education agent practices” including the publication of commission payments, while Catriona Jackson, CEO of Universities Australia, asked for comparative agent data to be made available to institutions and for better enforcement of the current regulatory framework.
“The current approach has comprehensively failed,”
“It seems the bad guys are paying absolutely nil attention to it and getting away with murder,” Jackson said.
Hill argued that universities had “scuffled” previous reform efforts, but Jackson said the “vast majority of the problems lie outside the universities sector”.
“There is a code of conduct for agents that is very strongly backed by all of my university members and there is action taken against dodgy agents in universities on a relatively regular basis. That is the system working from a university perspective,” she said.
Both ISANA and the International Student Education Agents Association advocated for more agent training and registration systems.
“We absolutely see the need for oversight of agents and accountability of agents because that is severely lacking at the moment,” said Robert Parsonson, executive officer at ISEAA.
“It’s very difficult to get rid of an agent out of the system as it currently stands. There is no cross-talk between providers necessarily and certainly not to the department.”
Karen Sandercock, first assistant secretary international division at the department for education, explained the oversight that is in place.
“We give information to providers to assist them with the monitoring of their agents,” she said.
“For instance, we look at agents that have high rates of visa refusals or whose students go on to transfer provider perhaps at higher rates than you might expect or whose students don’t go on to complete, which suggests they may have had other motivations for being in the country.”
Jane Li, Australasia and Japan area director at IDP, said agent regulation was “a good concept” but “it all comes down to the details that go into it”.
“The majority of students are happy with the education agent service and the sector has been thriving because of the great work that education agents have been doing,” she said, adding that over-regulating is a concern.
“I think that thought needs to be given as to where you draw the line… whether over-regulating could damage business and potentially punish ethical agents”.
The US State Department’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report identified that “unscrupulous employers [in Australia] coerce students to work in excess of the terms of their visas, making them vulnerable to trafficking by exploiting fears of deportation for immigration violations”.