Crackdown on student recruitment
Guy Healy and Andrew Trounson
Article from: The Australian
August 12, 2009
THE failure of the states to properly regulate the troubled college sector is putting at risk the $15 billion export education industry and the federal government should consider a takeover, according to former immigration minister Philip Ruddock.
“Given suggestions and reports that this (lack of state supervision) has occurred, it would be a grave dereliction of national duty if you have the powers, but don't enforce them,” he said. “It would be the same ashaving responsibility for law and order, and not having a police force.”
Mr Ruddock held the immigration portfolio in 2001 when the Howard government made a crucial policy change allowing overseas students emerging from universities and vocational colleges to apply onshore for permanent residency as skilled migrants. This linkage between migration and education has proved controversial.
Former Liberal MP Bruce Baird, given carriage of the federal government's overseas students review, told the HES this policy had “seemed like a good idea at the time”. But he was concerned that unscrupulous people in business had used the lure of permanent residency to recruit students for inadequate education. And he foreshadowed a tough approach to abuses: “Unless there are sanctions, we are wasting our time,” he said.
Mr Baird's comments prompted Mr Ruddock to break his silence and come to the defence of the Howard government policy.
He said recruitment of Australian-educated overseas students with good English and qualifications in fields where skills were in demand was “a no-brainer.” But he was concerned inadequate state enforcement had undermined compliance and integrity measures put in place by him and his then parliamentary secretary Kay Patterson.
Mr Ruddock said when the then new recruitment strategy had been set up, it had been with a clear expectation that the states bore primary responsibility for regulating the standards of colleges. “(But) some of these colleges set up to train students from abroad — I have heard — have little supervision,” he said.
“Students were often happy to have someone write off that they had completed a course, and even permit them to work longer hours while they had not attended any courses of study.”
He said this was “a significant failure on the part of the regulatory authorities” and had happened because “some people had taken their eye off the ball”.
“I don't believe it happened on my watch, and senator Kay Patterson was very focused on these issues,” he said.
Mr Ruddock suggested it was up to the federal government to call the states to account. “When you have an issue such as this, it's clearly in the national interest, with very significant fees obtained as an export revenue, that a competent federal minister would raise with the states their failure to properly supervise (the colleges) and, given so much is at risk, would have sought from the states power to properly supervise them if they were unwilling to do so,” he said.
Incumbent Immigration Minister Chris Evans has signalled a more explicit decoupling of permanent residency and education exports. This follows a series of reports detailing abuses and shortcomings in the industry, as well as a progressive tightening of the skilled migration rules.
Mr Ruddock observed that the Immigration Department traditionally focused on ensuring that bona fide students entered Australia, while the federal education bureaucracy had been “keen to grow student numbers”.
David Phillips, an adviser to the Bradley review of higher education, told the HES the states already possessed a “big stick”. Their powers included deregistration of providers.
“It may be worth examining whether a lower level of sanctions could be introduced to avoid the problem of states being reluctant to intervene because of the impact of deregistration on students,” he said.
A spokesman for federal Education Minister Julia Gillard said commonwealth and state education ministers had agreed to design and implement a new regulator, the Tertiary Education Standards and Quality Agency.
The announcement of the Baird review of the industry comes as the government moves to introduce amendments requiring providers to maintain a public list of education agents in a bid to make agents more transparent and accountable.
Stung by revelations of offshore agents in India and unscrupulous colleges exploiting international students, the private college sector has already announced plans to establish a public list of approved agents.
“The proposed amendment to the ESOS (Education Services for Overseas Students) Act will have little effect on Australian universities as all universities maintain such a list, and almost all already publish this list on their website,” University Australia chief executive Glenn Withers said.