It’s time to level the playing field for international students

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In 2022, international education earned this country $46.7 billion, which in the words of Universities Australia chief Catriona Jackson makes it “the biggest export we don’t source from the ground” – the only more valuable ones being iron ore, coal and natural gas.

This export has also become a major factor in the fortunes of our universities, with international student fees and charges now a key source of revenue, so that even before COVID-19 suddenly stopped the flow of foreign students to our shores, there were warnings that our tertiary education sector was over-reliant on them.

Prime ministers Anthony Albanese and Narendra Modi last month at a stadium named after the Indian leader in Ahmedabad. Stronger education ties have been announced between Australia and India.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

But in addition to supporting more than 240,000 jobs across the Australian economy, education also provides us with people who contribute to our society as a workforce and eventually, in some cases, as full-fledged members of the Australian community.

The importance of this market to our national balance sheet, and to the futures of those students who take part in it, means it has become ripe for exploitation and abuse. Last year, our Trafficked series exposed the role of certain unscrupulous education agents in rorting the education visa system. This week our reporters have revealed that concerns over the integrity of the system have resulted in a significant number of universities instituting bans or restrictions on applications from certain states in India, including the Indian prime minister’s home state of Gujarat.

Last year India leapfrogged China as our chief international education customer, partly as a result of China’s COVID-19 restrictions and continued political tensions between Canberra and Beijing. Last month federal Education Minister Jason Clare visited India to announce stronger education ties, from mutual recognition of qualifications to the possible establishment of Australian campuses in India, beginning with the University of Wollongong in NSW.

Yet even as Clare declared that visa processing times for Indian students had dropped, Wollongong and other universities are having to introduce more stringent testing of applicants from countries including India, Pakistan, Lebanon and Nigeria.

With Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Lebanon in a state of economic collapse, it is perhaps unsurprising that migrants from those countries will try their luck through the student visa path. But in the case of India, where so much work is being done to improve co-operation, perhaps the minister could prevail on his opposite number, Dharmendra Pradhan, to take a fresh look at regulation of his country’s education agents, to avoid the diplomatic fallout that results from blanket bans of students.

In return, we need to get serious about regulation of education agents in Australia. Federal Labor MP Julian Hill has already used the current parliamentary inquiry into international education to lament the fact that “if you’re a real estate agent, a licensed childcare operator, a financial adviser or just about anything else that you can think of and you rip off your clients, you don’t just phoenix into a new business and keep doing it the next day, but you can do that in education”, describing international students as “vulnerable consumers with huge information asymmetry”.

It is time education agents were registered under a system similar to that which applies to migration agents, so there are real consequences both for those going beyond their remit to provide migration advice and for others who mislead students about course and visa requirements.

Until now, the responsibility for monitoring education agents has rested with universities and vocational training colleges, but given the commercial relationship between agents and institutions, this was never likely to produce a uniform regulatory system. Instead, as this week’s reporting shows, we have individual education providers making up policies as they go along.

There is nothing wrong with international students trying to make the most of their money and shopping around, but it is vital that neither their money nor the government’s is lost in an environment where, to quote a migration agents’ group testifying to federal parliament in 2019, there is “no mechanism of complaint, no follow-through … no consequences”.

If we can level the playing field by providing students with information about where their money goes and protect education agents who do right by their clients through effective monitoring and registration, then everyone will be better off.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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