Fraudulent practices affecting thousands of international students in Australia will be part of the Federal Government’s inquiry starting this week. The focus of the inquiry will be migration agents and student agencies.
On Wednesday, June 27, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration will commence the first public hearing of this inquiry that looks into the efficacy of the current regulation of Australian migration agents.
The investigation includes the nature and prevalence of fraud, professional misconduct and other breaches by registered migration agents, the current review mechanisms for migration agents and the adequacy of penalties.
The inquiry committee is collecting evidence of the volumes and patterns of unregistered migration agents and education agents providing unlawful immigration services in Australia.
In the first session, the Department of Home Affairs is expected to be the only body allowed to participate as a witness.
In March, the Assistant Minister for Home Affairs, Alex Hawke, initiated a Parliamentary call to review the regulatory framework for international education. Mr Hawke asked the Committee to conduct an investigation into the effectiveness of the current regulation of Australian immigration agents.
Committee chair, Jason Wood, told the investigation hopes to conclude with a series of recommendations to the government designed to combat unlicensed immigration agents.
“What we have found out there is a lot of concerns when it comes from mainly what we called unregistered immigration agents, taking advantage of Australians, and also foreigners, could be international students trying to come to the country,” Mr Wood said.
“We want to come out with a report to the government to make recommendations and hopefully change this and could be more powers, could be more regulation; that is the intention of the inquiry.”
Mr. Wood didn’t rule out an increase of resources to protect international students from scams to strengthen international education – a sector that in 2017 injected AUD $32.3 billion to the Australian economy, according to the Department of Education and Training.
“It may be a recommendation that we need to put more resources in. But at the start of the issue, it is difficult to tell what the recommendations are because we do not know what our experts are going to be asking us to do with the witnesses.”
For the last four months, the Committee has been collecting background information and receiving submissions from both public and private entities.
So far 34 organisations, including the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Education and Training Department of Australia and the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA), have lodged their submissions.
This Committee is also collecting relevant stakeholders’ views through two online questionnaires, targeting students, immigration agents and education agents.
Maria Vamvakinou, Labor MP and vice-president of the Federal Joint Standing Committee on Migration says they are looking to identify any deficiency that could compromise the system and they are particularly interested in the role of education agents.
“At this stage we are still receiving presentations and the Joint Standing Committee on Migration will begin its public hearings in Sydney and Melbourne in mid-July,” Ms Vamvakinou told .
“The hearings are open to the public and I would recommend any member of your community to attend, if they wish.”
The inquiry begins two weeks after the Ombudsman of International students published a report that describes the investigation of fraud of the agency ‘Tu Futuro’ which allegedly scammed hundreds of Latin American students for more than AUD 500,000. SBS Spanish and SBS Portuguese have been reporting on this story since January 2017.
The crucial role of the education agents
The market of international education in Australia has been regulated since the year 2000, when the Federal Government created specific norms and regulations to guarantee minimum standards for international students. The main actors are the education providers, the migrant agents and the education agents.
Education agents play an important role in the recruitment of international students. In 2017 education agents were responsible for 73.6% of the enrolments of the more than 624,000 foreign students who came to Australia to study.
However, they are not legally responsible under Australian regulations, as detailed by the Australian Department of Education and Training in their submission to the inquiry starting this week.
The state’s oversight responsibility over the education agents is outsourced to the Australian private schools providing the courses. According to the 2018 National Code of Practice for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2018, it is the role of the “Australian registered providers to ensure that their education agents act ethically, honestly and in the best
interest of overseas students and uphold the reputation of Australia’s international education sector.”
The 2018 National Code of Practice for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students is one of the three regulators for educational services that are overseen by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA). The other two legal frameworks that regulate the industry are the Education Services for International Students Act (ESOS 2000) and the Higher Education Standards Framework (2015).
Last month TEQSA’s executive director Anthony McClaran told “TEQSA regulates universities and schools providing higher education and it is the responsibility of the provider to ensure the agents they work with here in Australia and overseas act in an ethical and honest manner, and in the best interest of international students.”
When complaints are not collective, instead of contacting TEQSA, students can submit them to the Commonwealth Ombudsman who can help potential, current and former students of private schools and universities based in Australia. International students also have a specific Ombudsman: the Ombudsman for Overseas Students.
The Ombudsman can help, for example, in the cases of complaints about an administrative tariff or a reimbursement that was not agreed in the written contract signed by the international student or potential student.
Notwithstanding, in May the Ombudsman’s office told that they are only authorised to investigate complaints of student agents who have an agreement to act on behalf of an Australian school. “We do not have jurisdiction to investigate educational agents that do not have an agreement to represent a private educational provider.”
The issues with education agents are not new. Since commencement in 2011, the Office of the Ombudsman has seen issues arise in complaints involving education agents. Some of the reported issues are: providing false or misleading advice about a course or provider, enrolling a student with one provider while telling the student they had been enrolled with a different provider; accepting tuition fees before the student signed the written agreement; failed to pass on tuition fees to the provider and even failing to give the student a copy of the written agreement, including the refund policy.
If international students have any issues with agents that do not have a formal agreement to represent Australian educational providers, the students should contact their local authorities and present a complaint against the agent. When the student is in Australia, they should contact the Australian consumer affairs agency of the state or territory where the agent operates.
In all cases, potential students can access the list of local student (education) agents in each country here. Only Colombia has 38 local agents listed in the Australian government website.
Listing overseas education agents in the official website of the Australian government might be confusing for potential international students. It can mislead them to believe the agents listed in the official site are legally responsible under Australian regulations, while they are not.
What happened to the victims of ‘Tu Futuro’ student agency in Australia?
The student agency industry showed its dark side with the alleged fraud committed by Tu Futuro agency in December 2016.
In January 2017, SBS Spanish broke the story of hundreds of international students from Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela and Spain, who were asking the Australian authorities to help them recover thousands of dollars given to the owners of ‘Tu Futuro agency’ – who operated out of Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
According to the students, they paid every expense to enrol in English courses in Australia except the cost of medical insurance and accommodation.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman Michael Manthorpe released a report that summarises the investigation that he carried out in 2017, due to the significant number of complaints received against ‘Tu Futuro’.
The document, dated June 15, 2018, states that the actions of this student agency generated economic losses of half a million dollars to hundreds of international students and involved 17 schools.
However, the Ombudsman report says the actions of this one agent aren’t indicative of a system failure.
The Ombudsman also says that together with the Tuition Protection Service (TPS) they could recover almost AUD $40,000 that was returned to the affected students.
The report explains that some of those affected received financial compensation while others arrived to agreements with the schools directly.
César Merino is a Colombian student who acted as the coordinator of hundreds of victims. He says that he has already accepted that the savings that took so much effort to collect are lost in the hands of the owners of ‘Tu Futuro’ agency.
Mr Merino said he paid the agency almost AUD $13,000, including the cost of his course and that of his brother. The agency did not pay the money to the institution on the Gold Cost where he planned to study English. Neither the payment vouchers nor the electronic transfers made to ‘Tu Futuro’ were enough to support his claim.
The most affected were those who didn’t receive the certificate of enrolment from the schools.
“The majority of those affected that sent the money directly to “Tu Futuro” agency in Australia have not received any kind of solution until today,” Mr Merino said. In mid-2017 he travelled to the Gold Coast to start again from scratch after getting into debt with a bank back in Colombia.
“We hope that in one way or another, education agencies – together with the schools – start being legally responsible for the educational processes they offer,” he said.
K.A is another victim of ‘Tu Futuro’. She asked to be identified by her initials. She told that after students made complaints to the Australian authorities, by the time they finally responded to the complaints, the agency had closed the business, packed up and left Australia. Some students have told that the owners of El Futuro are now living in the region of Tucuman, Argentina.
K.A. wants to warn potential foreign students – especially those who are still in their countries trying to come to Australia using local education agents. They are the most vulnerable of becoming victims of fraud because no Australian authority directly regulates student agencies, not within Australia, let alone in other countries.
“Education is one of Australia’s biggest sources of income and it seems very easy to become a student agent as they are not regulated,” K.A. said.
“When I tried to report my case, it wasn’t anyone’s competence: not the police because it was not a crime in Australia but overseas so it was no one’s competence. There is no one to report this case to.”
K.A. arrived Australia with her family because she managed to receive the letter of enrolment from the school her husband applied to through ‘Tu Futuro’. However, she lost nearly AUD $24,000 in the process.
She says schools should be the only ones authorised to receive money from students, without intermediate agencies.
“It is very bad that the education agents are administrating the money. If it had gone directly to the school to which it had to be paid to, it would have been very different.
My money was in the agents’ hands and education agents aren’t regulated by anyone. It was as if I had given the money to a random person”, KA said .
César Piracoca, another Colombian aspiring student, is still in Bogotá waiting for a solution.
He says he received no official support during the investigation, even though he had the enrolment certificates from Riverton, the Australian Institute of Business and Technology, which he paid for through ‘Tu Futuro’. He was enrolled to attend a general English course and a Diploma in Business Administration.
Mr Piracoca asks the Australian authorities to increase the control of the education agencies. He said he contacted ‘Tu Futuro’ agency through the official website “Study in Australia”, administered by the Australian Committee of Trade and Investment (Austrade).
“They (the Australian government) should have more legislation, a way for the government to know where the money is coming from and who is making money from those resources,” he told .
“Because the truth is that one could send money through many informal ways, with people, or through electronic means, such as PayPal and electronic transfers (…) Anyone can be a student agent.”
Mr Piracoca said he still has no certainty whether he can come with his family to study in Australia. After the economic blow that lost him his savings to ‘Tu Futuro’, the latest news is that Riverton School – where he was supposed to study – closed its doors two months ago. https://www.riverton.edu.au/
The joint Committee will also hold public hearings in Sydney and Melbourne but is yet to set any dates.