Pressure to rein in 'corrupt' colleges
April 14, 2009
THE Federal Government is facing mounting internal pressure to launch a co-ordinated nationwide crackdown on corrupt training colleges that are making millions of dollars a year exploiting foreign students by breaching immigration and education laws.
Senior officials from government departments have told The Age that widespread rackets among private trades colleges are “out of control” and undermining Australia's education, immigration and employment systems.
Complex networks linking unscrupulous private colleges, migration agents, education agents and businesses offering work experience indicated the involvement of organised crime, one official said.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said serious problems existed at several levels: colleges and agents were fleecing students using forged certificates and immigration fraud; government agencies charged with checking the credentials of students entering the country were “lackadaisical”; and some students were complicit in scams aimed at securing permanent residency in Australia.
They said that while individual government departments and agencies were belatedly stepping up efforts to deal with the problem, a unified response from the Commonwealth was being hampered by a lack of co-ordination, confusion over jurisdictions, and a reluctance to upset a lucrative industry.
“It's out of control,” one of the officials said. “In the current economic climate I think people are fairly reticent to try to fiddle with this huge earner in Australia.”
International education is a $13.7 billion industry, making it the nation's third largest export after coal and iron. Australia has the highest proportion (19 per cent) of international students of any OECD country.
“The whole thing is a sustained attack on our education system, it's an attack on our immigration system, it's an attack on our workplace relations system,” another official said.
“The Government is allowing it to happen and it could be stopped with the stroke of a pen,” he said.
Kimberley Gardiner, a spokeswoman for federal Education Minister Julia Gillard, yesterday did not respond to specific allegations but defended the integrity of the system and urged people with information to come forward.
The Australian Council for Private Education and Training, an industry body, yesterday denied rogue colleges were widespread, saying the “vast majority” of Australia's private education and training providers operated ethically.
The state's regulator of education providers, the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA) acknowledges the existence of what it calls “dodgy providers” but has repeatedly denied the problem is widespread.
Departments and agencies involved in investigating complaints about the international education industry include the Department of Immigration, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, the Australian Federal Police and in Victoria, the VRQA.
Government departments have been inundated with letters of complaint from students alleging illegal activity and threatening or unethical behaviour by college operators.
They allege colleges are offering qualifications for under-the-counter payments; that students are being bullied into making advance payments for semesters or face fines; and that students are being fined up to $250 for being late for classes or for submitting assignments late.
Students also allege colleges are charging them for subject results and threatening to have them deported if they ask to switch colleges. Some colleges are allegedly charging students thousands of dollars to be formally allowed to leave.
Last week The Age reported that the Immigration Department was investigating 20 colleges in Melbourne for possible breaches of immigration laws. Raids on migration agents allegedly supplying fake documents to international students took place last month.
In December, federal immigration officers and police raided nine Melbourne businesses over claims that some charged up to $20,000 for fake education certificates and work references.
Ms Gillard's spokeswoman said in a statement yesterday: “The minister urges anyone with information of this nature to contact the relevant authority, where all information is treated confidentially.
“Australia's reputation for quality education and training services for overseas students has been enhanced by compulsory, nationally consistent registration of education providers and their courses and appropriate enforcement powers and sanctions for non-compliance.”