FRIDAY, 1 MAY 2014




MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The Productivity Commission has found the use of agents to attract international students to Australian universities is a threat to the system in the long term.

International education is one of the nation's biggest export industries - last year it contributed around $17 billion to the national economy.

But the Productivity Commission warns of unscrupulous behaviour by agents, including enrolling students for courses that require more advanced English skills

Political correspondent Louise Yaxley reports. 

LOUISE YAXLEY: International student numbers are booming. The Minister, Christopher Pyne, says last year Australia hosted the largest number of international students ever and it's jumped 11 per cent in the first three months of this year.

The Productivity Commission backs that but it identifies a threat from the universities' reliance on agents who are paid on commission to attract those students.

It says it's not convinced that all universities consider the long-term costs of using agents - in particular, that they might be bringing down the average quality of students or signing them up without adequate English language skills to complete the course.

Labor's spokesman, Kim Carr, says those concerns echo earlier warnings.

KIM CARR: We have ICAC (Independent Commissioner Against Corruption) in New South Wales, we have the ABC's Four Corners program and now the Productivity Commission all pointing in the same direction about the failure to regulate international agents. 

YAXLEY: He calls for action about the allegations of agents acting unscrupulously. 

CARR: We don't need many to undermine the whole quality regime in this country - and reputation of this country for quality education providers is the key to the success of our fourth largest export industry. 

So the Government has got a responsibility to assure quality, reassure people that the claims being made are being cleaned up, and the individual universities have got a responsibility to ensure they are not employing agents who are crook. 

This is not confined to any one university and it's incumbent on each university to ensure that each of their agents is of the highest quality. 

Now a major university in this country may, in fact, employ up to 200 agents so we can understand how it is at times difficult to ensure that each and every one of those agents is behaving entirely consistently with ethical standards.

YAXLEY: Minister Pyne's spokesman says the Government welcomes the Productivity Commission's report.

He says a draft national strategy for international education released earlier this month is already looking at the issues.

And the spokesman says using education agents has been important to Australia's success in the highly competitive global education market. but he says the Government is working closely with the International Education Association to help institutions monitor agents and decide who they should continue to work with.

However, Senator Carr says the Government has cut the funding to the regulator by 40 per cent, making it harder to ensure there's a rigorous approach to quality. 

BRISSENDEN: Louise Yaxley reporting.



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