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Australian international VET: a sector under scrutiny

The parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s VET sector has uncovered that some onshore international education providers have been “gaming the system”, using unregulated agents to divert students from reputable public institutions to alternative “cheap” private providers.

Photo: Pexels

Catriona Jackson claims the “vast majority” of problems lie outside the university sector

It’s been alleged that dubious providers are offering massive commissions (as high as 50% of fees),  facilitating the sale of work visas and even establishing “ghost schools” where students receive qualifications without attending classes.

Medical practitioners may also be involved by providing medical certificates to allow students to change to dubious cheap providers on permitted grounds of illness or distress.

Concerns raised at the parliamentary hearings are primarily about the exploitation of Australia’s student visa system by using it to obtain “low-rent work visa”, with the federal Labor government promising to crack down on unregulated agents and restore the sector’s social license after “a decade of drift and neglect.”

It appears that some measures are already being enacted.  In February, the Department of Home Affairs rejected 94% applications from India to study in Australia’s vocational sector, compared with less than 1% of student applications from countries including the US, the UK and France.

Key higher education bodies are in agreement that reforms are needed to prevent malpractice but have differing perspectives on the best approach. The International Student Education Agents Association executive officer Robert Parsonson blames severe lack of accountability within the sector.

Menelaos Koumides, managing director of the Australian Academy of Vocational Education and Trades, added that with 98% of students using education agents to secure a spot in Australia’s education institutions, the current regulatory system “was never fit for purpose” and is failing.

On the other hand, the Universities Australia CEO Catriona Jackson claims the “vast majority” of problems lie outside the university sector and the current self-regulation approach is working.

International students and their experiences in Australia appear to be of a lesser concern. About 180,000 international students are enrolled in the training sector across about 900 providers, regulated by the Australian Skills Quality Authority.

ASQA has received 470 complaints and intelligence about training providers in the past 12 months; just seven have had their registrations cancelled or suspended.

A former teacher at an ASQA-accredited private educational institute with campuses across Australia told Guardian Australia the school was using educational agents to lure international students with promises of questionable pathways to affiliated public universities.

“International students and their experiences in Australia appear to be of a lesser concern”

The education material was outdated, the classrooms overcrowded and filthy – still, this cost each student about AUS$1,000 a month.

With rental and cost of living going up while work rights for international students being wound back from full time to 48 hours a fortnight from July 1, more students might be forced to look to cheaper education providers.

Gabriela Weiss, representing a crisis management service for international students in New South Wales, urged the federal government to consider making international students eligible for basic human rights such as emergency services and crisis accommodation.

This year is shaping up to be pivotal for Australia’s higher education sector. Federal government is planning to deliver a Universities Accord – a long-term national sector strategy – the first one since 2008. Problems in vocational education and training, including regulation of education agents, are being discussed in consultations for the Accord.

Coincidentally, international student enrolment and commencement levels in 2023 have matched or exceeded 2019 levels, when the international higher education sector contributed AUS$40 billion to the Australian economy.

However, their views are unlikely to be represented in the development of the Accord. The views on restoring the sector’s social licence don’t seem to consider those who contribute so much.

About the author: This article was written by international project officer at LaTrobe University Jennet Ure (views are her own and not those held by LaTrobe University).

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