Recommendations to “rebuild and reset” Australian international education

A senate subcommittee has submitted 29 recommendations to Australia’s government which it says will help the international education sector to “rebuild and reset” after the pandemic as well as build “sustainable growth”.

Using the same phrase that UK ministers often use, one part of recommendation 1 around diversification is to encourage the “brightest and best” to consider study in Australia from identified priority countries with  “Department of Home Affairs permitting lead providers to take approved and calculated risks in the early phases of market development without affecting their visa ratings”.

The long-awaited first report from the Trade Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade has been anticipated since government launched an inquiry into the sector’s recovery in October 2022.

A number of recommendations also urge government to make changes that will impact education agents.

It says the that government should “accept that regulation of education agents is essential and long overdue”, urging it to tighten regulations.

“Government should consider the most effective way of ensuring scrutiny of education agents given their key role in providing temporary migration advice and dealing with often vulnerable consumers. Any model will need to ensure compliance with a single Code of Ethical Practice for Education Agents setting expected standards for all education agents who work with Australian education providers,” it said.

“Government should consider the most effective way of ensuring scrutiny of education agents”

Via the Provider Registration and International Student Management System, providers should have access to all education agents’ information and it should be mandatory to disclose agent commissions and other payments to students.

Government should also develop model clauses for providers to use in written agreements with education agents to “improve integrity, consumer protection and enable more transparency of payments”.

The AUS$40 billion dollar industry shrunk to half its size by 2022 says the report.

Further targeted communication is needed to educate international students of their rights and obligations when studying in Australia and what providers and education agents are obliged to do for students.

Questions about education agents should be added to Quality Indicators for Teaching and Learning Surveys to “provide more detailed information of the agent student interactions”.

Government needs to do more on international student employment, the document states.

Targeted campaigns are needed to educate employers on hiring international student graduates in sectors with high skilled job vacancies, while a national framework should be given oversight on work-integrated learning placements.

Other competitor countries are offering apprenticeships and paid work and learn integrated models, the report said.

“These models offer better integration between industry and educational entities, and should be given immediate consideration,” it noted.

Government should also considering differentiating visa applications for international students who choose to study at TAFEs

At the same time, government needs to review and improve protections for international students to safely report workplace exploitation.

It also urges government to “review and consider” the establishments of campuses in Central Business District – where students are “largely international” and teaching sub-contracted – as part of the University Accord process.

At the recent AIEC conference in Adelaide, MP Julian Hill noted that homestay and purpose built student accommodation should be maximised in order to mitigate housing shortages in some regions.

The paper adds that home stay will “deepen connections between international students and Australian society”, and authorities should highlight tax advantages for Australians who host up to two international students.

Government should examine mechanisms to boost investment in PBSA and remove planning and development impediments of new provisions, the committee suggested.

Hill also suggested countries in South America, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria as potential markets for the sector to prioritise.

The interim report adds Botswana, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Colombia and Chile as potential growth areas, as well as Australia’s near neighbours where the sector can expand programs that deliver development support.

Government has already begun to take action on some recommendations in the report.

It called for improved data sharing between agencies to address integrity concerns, and government should “use whatever means at its disposal” to compel education providers to develop information channels to raise concerns.

It should also “take firm action to address persistent and deep-seated integrity issues in the private VET sector”, the subcommittee added.

“Major reform” is needed in international student assessment, especially in the VET sector, the document noted.

Regulators have been tasked with setting up an integrity unit to combat unlawful behaviour in the VET sector and a tip-off line for whistleblowers established.

The concurrent enrolment ban announced in August, as well as a ban on onshore commissions for transferring students, has sought to end loopholes that were being used to access work opportunities. Recommendation both 21 and 27 discuss these issues, as well as recommendation 17 which calls for a review international education regulatory bodies.

Within government itself, an appropriate Parliamentary Committee should hold a regular annual or biennial ‘check-in’ inquiry, an International Education Compact developed to clarify role and responsibilities of different departments and levels of government with regards to international education.

Chair of the Trade Subcommittee senator Deborah O’Neill said that the report reflects the evidence the committee has heard over the past 12 months.

“The 29 recommendations made by the committee complement the reforms recently announced by the government, with the aim of strengthening the integrity and enhancing the competitiveness of Australia’s international education sector,” O’Neill said.

“There is an opportunity to also focus on students and their wellbeing”

Alumni and a ‘Team Australia’ approach will help to foster enduring connections with priority countries, she suggested.

“There is an opportunity to also focus on students and their wellbeing, and opportunities to use new methods of supporting students and teaching methods while also ensuring the educational experience in Australia is a rich and rewarding one,” she added.

The document “lays the foundations for a broader consideration of the significant intersection between international education and tourism in modern Australia”, she concluded.

“We urge the government to take aboard the recommendations for action and to implement them judiciously and in a timely manner.”

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