The Joint Parliamentary Inquiry into efficacy of current regulation of Australian migration and education agents was released in February, which claimed “unscrupulous, unlawful and unethical” education agents were exploiting both international students and Australia’s visa system.
Specifically, these agents were accused of deceiving students on migration pathways and work rights, in addition to pushing students into inappropriate courses that pay higher commissions, thus leaving students “substantially out of pocket after being exploited”.
Then in August, the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) released its strategic review into international education, which revealed that unregulated education agents were behind three-quarters of international student enrolments and were routinely deceiving vulnerable students:
There is no legal requirement under Australian law for providers or overseas students to engage an agent, but most do—agents facilitated almost 74 per cent of the total overseas student enrolments in 2017… education agents are a non-regulated sector and there are no official registration processes for becoming an education agent…
The desire to pursue paid employment opportunities, even in breach of their visa conditions, is likely to motivate some students and introduces the risk that some providers and agents will seek to exploit this demand and recruit these overseas students using misleading and unethical practices.
Overseas students rely heavily on the assistance of education agents when making decisions and can lack reliable information to hold their providers and education agents to account. This dependence makes overseas students vulnerable to being misinformed, misled and, in the worst circumstances, open to exploitation…
Last week, Education Minister Dan Teehan announced a new policy to increase the “transparency and accountability for international students through the publication of education agent data”:
“Education agents are playing an increasingly larger role in the international student sector, and education providers are responsible for ensuring they are using reputable agents,” Mr Tehan said.
“The publication of this data will help inform providers about how agents are performing and to use that information when making decisions about which agents to do business with.
“This data gives providers visibility of the enrolment and visa outcomes of students recruited by their agents, as well as benchmarking performance against other agents.”
The overview paper attached to this announcement shows that education agents have their tentacles buried deep in the international student trade:
In 2018, there were 6,878 active agencies and 19,413 agents involved in enrolments for overseas students at Australian education providers. Education agencies are the business entities and education agents are the individual counsellors assisting overseas students. The percentage of enrolments facilitated by an education agent varies by sector, as shown in Figure 1. As might be expected, prospective students looking to study English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS) are the most reliant on education agents. There has been a gradual increase in education agent involvement in enrolments over the last five years across the Higher Education, VET, Schools, and ELICOS sectors.
The percentage of enrolments that are facilitated by agents also varies across the top student nationalities for Australia as detailed in Table 1. Notably, emerging partner countries such as Nepal, Brazil and Colombia have a larger proportion of enrolments facilitated by agents, compared to more established partner countries such as China, India and Malaysia.
The incompletion rate for an agency reflects the student outcomes for enrolments facilitated by that agency.
Interestingly, Australia’s top three source nations for international students – China, India and Nepal – have the highest proportion of education agencies with high student incompletion rates:
While the federal government’s ‘crackdown’ on dodgy education agents is all well as good, the underlying driver of the decline in entry standards is the education institutions themselves. That is, they have sought to swell international student enrolments by entering markets where document fraud and cheating is commonplace.
If you don’t believe me, here’s the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption:
In the search for international students, some universities in NSW are entering markets where document fraud and cheating on English-language proficiency tests are known to exist. They are using large numbers of local intermediaries – sometimes more than 200 agents – to market to and recruit students, resulting in due diligence and control challenges…
False entry qualifications, cheating on English-language proficiency tests, essay mills selling assignments, plagiarism, cheating in university exams and paying others to sit exams are reportedly common.
Publishing education agent data cannot undo the underlying incentive to degrade entry and teaching standards to maximise student fees.