Beware the banana skins of the Migration Strategy

25 JANUARY 2024

Beware the banana skins of the Migration Strategy

A Charles Sturt expert outlines the pros and cons of the planned reforms of the Migration Strategy 2023, including whether various major policies are likely to achieve its objectives, or quite the opposite.

By Mr Mike Ferguson, Charles Sturt University Pro Vice-Chancellor, International.

Possible 'course-hopping'

The Federal Government should be congratulated for its intent to improve the integrity of international education in Australia. The Migration Strategy, released late last year, contains several good policy initiatives, though also a few banana skins.

These include the de-prioritisation of visa applications for so-called ‘high-risk’ providers, and the intent to ban commission payments for onshore student transfers.

Both of these ideas sound sensible on paper, however when you dig deeper, they become problematic.  In fact, they could be the kind of vibe-based policy that delivers poorer integrity outcomes and unintended pitfalls, such as students choosing a university based on its purported expertise in immigration assessment, rather than teaching quality or student experience.

By prioritising and giving a light touch to visa applications for supposedly low-risk providers, the Government is explicitly signalling where the system’s weak spot is, and consequently which providers non-genuine students should target – some of whom will be poorly equipped to handle this. This could create new visa rorts, together with increased rates of ‘course-hopping’, where students transfer from universities to cheaper providers after arrival in Australia. 

Market skewing

Universities will also likely think twice about which markets they recruit from, with likely entrenched reliance on lower-risk markets like China. This could come at the expense of diversification and could have negative diplomatic implications (expect more of the recent scenario where some universities ‘banned’ applications from specific Indian provinces).

Another weakness of the de-prioritisation policy is that it is not sophisticated enough to distinguish between provider risk outcomes at a country level.  This means providers with low global risk ratings (for example due to heavy recruitment in China) will be prioritised and subject to low scrutiny even in markets, such as India or Nepal, where they have very poor visa outcomes.  Such an approach does not pass the pub test and risks compromising integrity.

We've been here before

If this sounds familiar, we’ve been here before. The Rudd/Gillard Government’s Streamlined Visa Processing was based on a similar premise before being disbanded in 2016 due to exactly the sort of issues outlined above, including an almost doubling in ‘course-hopping’, increasing fraud, and market distortion concerns.

At least for the commission ban, there remains hope of a sensible outcome as the Government is still finalising the detail. A ban is however almost certain to be a ‘baby out with the bath water’ type measure – with the genuine and non-genuine treated alike. This ignores the fact that most education agents offer a high-quality service, and that young people in an unfamiliar country may on occasion have legitimate grounds to change their education provider, city or course.

Undermining support for onshore students

Critically, a ban risks undermining protections in-place under the Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Act – which quasi-regulates education agents through obligations imposed on providers.  A ban takes the provider out of the picture, instead creating a direct student and agent relationship – without ESOS protections and no Government visibility or oversight. This runs a real risk of student exploitation and damage to Australia’s reputation.

For those with non-genuine intent, the ban could even make ‘course hopping’ more attractive, as shonky providers will no-doubt reduce tuition fees to compensate for savings gained by not needing to pay agent commission. With a combination of the ban and de-prioritisation policy, these providers could have a field day.

The way forward

A far better approach to a commission ban would be to remove the business model of shonky agents and providers by promptly cancelling the Student visas of those who engage in mala-fide activity and breach visa conditions. This would send a strong signal and leave the shonky minority with nothing left to sell.

To the Government’s credit it has shown willingness to correct policy mistakes. For example, it has now wound back the Post Study Work visa extension, implemented following last year’s Jobs and Skills Summit, and instead adopted a generally more sustainable approach.

As Australia’s largest services export, international education is vital to the country’s future. The Government is right to take proactive steps to ensure sustainability but to achieve this it must quickly rectify the small number of clumsy measures in the Strategy. Otherwise, the ‘once in a generation’ Migration Strategy may need to be revisited much more quickly than anticipated.

This article first appeared in The Australian.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Mr Mike Ferguson, contact Trease Clarke at Charles Sturt Media on 0409 741 789 or news@csu.edu.au

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