Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Agents prey on foreign students

Agents prey on foreign students
from the Australian
LURED by the high commissions offered by private colleges in Australia, unscrupulous education agents in India are using false promises of work and residency to funnel students into courses that in some cases they don't want to do.

In extreme cases, international students arrive thinking they will be studying in beautiful buildings such as Melbourne's historic town hall, only to discover on arrival that their college is a "dog box", according to student advocate Robert Palmer.

Mr Palmer, a veteran of the education industry, said students were turning up at his Overseas Student Support Network in Melbourne complaining of being duped by their agents.

He said colleges and regulators were also to blame for not doing enough to prevent students from falling prey to lying agents.

"People in Australia conveniently say they can't control overseas agents, but if they are your agent then you are legally responsible for their actions," Mr Palmer said.

He said that under the Education Services for Overseas Students Act, providers -- universities, TAFEs or private colleges -- must ensure students are fully informed before they enrol and that wasn't happening.

"If the act was policed properly, you would go a long way towards solving the problem," he said.

Last month, the federal government brought forward a planned review to tighten up the ESOS act.

Australia's commercially focused education industry is an attractive trade for offshore education agents. Universities and TAFEs are prized clients because they have large and regular volumes. But the competition can weigh on commissions. According to Mr Palmer, a university would commonly pay a 25 per cent commission on first semester fees, equivalent to about $1200-$1500 a student.

Private colleges, especially new ones in need of students, are happy to pay much higher commissions to ensure supply. Mr Palmer said they commonly paid 30 per cent of the fee for a whole course. For a two-year course, which is the minimum required for a student to apply for skilled migration, fees would commonly amount to $16,000, translating into a commission of almost $5000 a student.

At the Australian end of the trade, students can find themselves left struggling to get refunds from colleges that enforce sometimes tight deadlines on notices of cancellations.

"Once they get their hands on the student, they will do everything in their power to keep the student in their college," Mr Palmer said.

Mr Palmer estimated that since February, when OSSN opened its office in Melbourne, he had handled 1000 legitimate complaints. Of those, at least 80per cent were about students being misled by education agents in their home country.

Michael Bull, of Immigration Consulting Group Australia, said students were made easy prey for unscrupulous agents by the pressure put on them by their families, who often took out hefty loans in the hope the student would be able to secure work and eventually residency.

"Their eyes are on the pot of gold and that makes them vulnerable to misinformation, badly researched information or straight out crooks," Mr Bull said.

He said some students were also simply trying to get around the system, believing they would somehow be able to secure residency once they were here.

Mr Bull said the industry needed to do more to ensure agents were giving out the right information. He said some colleges were ramping up their efforts, noting that last year he was twice commissioned by a college to travel to India to check up on agents.

The Australian Council for Private Education and Training is investigating the possibility of establishing a register of approved agents for the industry. Its chief executive, Andrew Smith, said: "The regulations are clear that the colleges are responsible but the difficulty is in how you address the acts of people halfway around the world."