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Onshore agents help students switch to “unethical” providers – Australia inquiry

Agents are helping international students in Australia switch to lower-cost providers, a parliamentary inquiry has heard, but agents in India insist that it is those working onshore who are responsible.

Agents in India insist that those helping student switch are "onshore". Photo: Pexels

More students are considering switching to cheaper providers

Some institutions and offshore agents have called for loopholes that allow Australian institutions to ‘poach’ international students to be closed, as concerns about transfers heighten. 

Universities have long complained about private VET providers encouraging international students to transfer to cheaper courses, and now education and migration agents are being accused of assisting students to switch early.

International students must wait six months to move to a different provider, unless there are exceptional circumstances such as illness.

Speaking to the joint committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade, which is conducting an inquiry into Australia’s international education sector, representatives from consultancy The Lygon Group said agents have been helping students to swap providers by connecting them with counsellors and GPs who can provide the documentation needed to change institutions early. 

“Some of them are having that conversation with agents prior to coming here,” said Varsha Devi Balakrishnan, head of student insights and strategy at The Lygon Group.

She added that more students are considering switching to cheaper providers as the amount of hours they are allowed to work is set to be restricted once more from July

Deborah O’Neill, senator and member of the committee, described what she had heard as “a scheme that’s been cooked up, facilitated by some of these unethical providers of education”.

Phil Honeywood, CEO of the International Education Association of Australia, spoke on the same day about a trend of offshore agents recruiting students to Australia, only for a family member of the agent based in Australia to “poach the same student off of the university or quality provider and have them placed for additional commission into another provider”.

“Some of them are having that conversation with agents prior to coming here”

Nishi Borra, president of the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India, said the organisation has seen a “huge increase” in the number of new students lured into changing providers by promises of “fee discounts, cash backs, job promises, migration pathways and other freebies” from onshore agents and private institutions. 

“These are genuine students who have come to Australia to study a world-class degree at a university,” he told The PIE News. “They have invested their time and money, plus they are young and impressionable and many fall into this trap.” 

Borra said the issue was a “serious concern” for offshore agents but that members of AAERI “cannot be held responsible for student movement as the students are not in the agent’s control once onshore”.

Ravi Lochan Singh, director of Global Reach, told The PIE there is “no incentive” for the vast majority of offshore agents to facilitate student movement. 

“My observation is that it is the onshore migration agents doubling as education agents for those dodgy private providers that poach on the students recruited by universities from offshore markets,” he said. 

Lochan Singh added that believed claims about agents engaging GPs were “a bit of an exaggeration”. 

“While students seeking medical certificates may be accurate, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the GPs are engaged by the education agents,” he said. 

“The fact that you can sign up to two courses at the same time is a bad idea”

Representatives from the international education sector told the inquiry that the government should crack down on concurrent enrolments, through which students can sign up to two courses, effectively allowing them to transfer without requiring a release. 

“The fact that you can sign up to two courses at the same time is a bad idea, it just encourages bad behaviour,” Catriona Jackson, CEO of Universities Australia, said at the hearing. 

Representatives from The Department of Education told senators they are aware of this issue and are “having a very serious look” at it. 

AAERI and Lochan Singh, among others, also recommended linking student visas to a specific institution so a student would have to reapply if they move education provider.

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