Unethical providers using student visa loophole to game the system

It’s unfortunate that some providers within the vocational education industry are still able to get away with less than ethical standards of practice. The existence of mock RTOs established to help international students cheat the visa system has come to the attention of Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA), which is the primary regulator in the industry. Due to a loophole present in the migration and education system, the authority is sometimes powerless to act against unethical practices directed from other countries driven by unregulated offshore educational agents.

International students who wish to come to Australia primarily to engage in casual work approach an educational agent in their own country, who then enrols the student into one of these so-called “ghost schools”. Since 2007, trainers are no longer required to provide student attendance records, and are only required to provide student outcomes if the student fails in two consecutive semesters. 

To curb this, students make sure they pass every alternative semester, helping them extend their study visa period by attending the minimum requirement of classes. This essentially allows those engaging and profiting off this arrangement both in Australia and overseas to use the student visa as a proxy for a work visa. 

Those engaging in the practice boldly advertise night classes and/or courses conducted only once day a week to encourage students who work regular hours, allowing them to engage in minimum study routines to help keep their visa status. Educational visas allow students to work a maximum of 20 hrs a week, but these requirements are often difficult to regulate as students can engage in various casual jobs. Some providers were also encouraging students to engage mostly in online self-paced study and indicated the students did not need to attend classes at all.

Negative outcomes for vocational industry

The biggest consequences of RTOs who attempt to game the system is the obvious reputational damage to the VET sector. To highlight the rise of non-compliant and unethical training organisations in recent years, ASQA has cancelled the registration of 322 providers in the 2017-18 period, compared to just 69 in 2015-16.

The damage comes in two forms; firstly from the students themselves who graduate from the Australian education sector with non-existent or inferior skills (either knowingly or otherwise), and secondly from the increasing need to police training organisations as unethical providers reduce study costs and decrease the quality of legitimate educational practices. For legitimate training organisations, this unfortunately also means an unnecessary increase in scrutiny.

Since it is not in the students interest to report these providers, regulating and auditing unethical RTOs is often difficult. 

Industry experts and regulators weigh in

ASQA’s stated in their Regulatory Strategy for 2018-20 that it will be increasing its spot auditing activities and focusing on the practices of CRICOS and the international scope of vocational education in the immediate future, to address what it sees as significant risk to the VET sector.

Mark Patterson, The Chief Commissioner of ASQA has stated that the authority had raised the bar for student entry requirements for training organisations. However, they were incapable of regulating educational agents (some of who are based overseas), that are increasingly used by providers to boost declining enrolment numbers as government policy increasingly supports the university sector.

“We’ve tightened scrutiny of ‘fit and proper standing’ for RTOs, their financial viability and on how they intend to deliver a service,” Mr Paterson said.

Migration agents and domestic education consultants were also quick to point out that the lack of regulation of educational agents, both onshore and offshore (which were constantly surfacing and were easy to set up and dismantle), made things difficult for genuine operators.

Dan Tehan, the Morrison government’s appointed Education Minister, has said the government would publish education-agent data to encourage the visibility and high performance of agents. Other industry experts have instead suggested that the creation of a public register list of government-endorsed agents, or requiring agents to show they have professional indemnity would be a better approach

Julian Hill, the Labor member for Bruce in Melbourne and former executive director of international education and migration in the Victorian department of economic development, told parliament he believed radical action was needed in the sector, and the assessment and teaching functions of high-risk VET providers should be separated. Additionally, he proposed testing the students of high-risk providers to identify those where skills were not being properly taught, and shutting them down accordingly.

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