The shambles engulfing Australia’s international students continues to bubble along. Even worse, publicity about it continues to bubble along overseas, especially in Indian media.

There are now reports that the education sector is trying to crack down on so-called ‘rogue education agents’.  It’s hard to see how that achieves anything more than window dressing.  The previous government specifically exempted education agents from the regulatory requirements which currently apply to migration agents.  This exemption was provided specifically to make it easier for Australian educational institutions to recruit students, without the ‘red tape’ of registration and quality control.

This has left these agents completely outside existing controls, beyond the normal laws regarding fraud and the like.  The Migration Agents Registration Authority, which polices the conduct of migration agents, can’t touch education agents.  Nor can they touch those who falsely claim to be migration agents, or those operating offshore who provide misleading advice.  The education industry is now reaping what they sowed.  Unfortunately, the harm will be spread across some of the reputable institutions, and the broader economic (and social) loss will be borne by all of us.

In some ways, a greater concern is the damage to perceptions about Australia.  No doubt some of the media commentary in India has been exaggerated or over the top. But our tabloid media are just as capable of wildly distorted coverage, especially when there is a chance for some nationalist tub thumping, so we’re not really in much of a position to complain.

One of the other causes of the problem is that while the Immigration Department determines the conditions attached to various permanent residency visas and visas for foreigners wishing to study here and does the monitoring and enforcing of those conditions, it is the Education Department which oversees the institutions which provide the courses.

Often, it is lack of support for students or shoddiness on the part of the education provider which can play a part in a student failing to meet their visa conditions, particularly when it comes to course attendance and academic results. But the Immigration Department only looks at whether a not a student keeps within the requirements of their visa, not whether or not the educational institution meets its obligations.

The obvious financial windfall to government, as well as the education industry, provides a pretty big incentive for the Education Department not to get too heavy handed.  And let’s face it, our whole society benefits from the overseas student influx. They are a huge source of export income and generate significant levels of economic activity, including paying income tax from the twenty hours a week work many of them need to do to survive. But while they provide oceans of money for our economy, they are not eligible for any support services beyond what their institution might choose to provide.

On top of the lack of support for students from some education or training institutions, the isolation of many international students. the lack of knowledge of local rights and laws, and the fear of being seen to cause trouble that many people on temporary visas feel leaves them much more open to exploitation. This can happen in the workplace, as well as with their housing or accomodation.

This story states that since 2001, around 2650 students have ended up in immigration detention, some for extended periods.  Almost all of these ended up with no qualification despite paying large amounts and being removed from the country with a black mark against their immigration record which will make it much harder for them to travel in the future, particularly to Australia. On top of that, most got issued a debt for the cost of their detention.  A very big price for failing your exams.

This horrendous story of a Japanese woman who came here to do a PhD is a tragic example of what can happen to a person once they get caught up in the Kafkaesque regulatory roundabout between Education, Immigration and the courts.

Minister Chris Evans is apparently giving consideration to de-linking obtaining Australian qualifications with eligibility for permanent residency. This is easier said than done, but there is a lot of merit in trying it, as it removes a distortion in our migration processes.  That doesn’t mean we should make it harder for people to obtain permanent residence, but it does mean we should streamline and broaden the criteria.