April 2010 issue

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Australia’s overhaul

A major overhaul of policy and strategy as regards education export could help bolster the industry in Australia, or – as some fear – mean a decrease in incoming international students. Amy Baker reports.

Vocational training in Australia has been under the spotlight over the past 12 months and this was in part due to a major uptake of vocational training opportunities by international students since 2008. In fact, the VET (Vocational Education and Training) sector in Australia was the fastest growing sector of Australia’s education industry in 2008 – with enrolments rising by 46 per cent year-on-year.

The largest student nationality enrolling on these courses was Indian – there was an astonishing 94 per cent growth from 2007 to 2008 in Indian enrolments. An ensuing – and associated – violent tension in Australia between Indian students and some Australians has been well documented, while the modus operandi of some institutions was called into question, as stories of students studying on sub-standard education programmes just to qualify for migration surfaced.

The outcome has been a serious re-addressing of education export priorities by the Australian government and a realigning/reduction of education-to-migration pathways; considered to be the real appeal of such vocational courses (see left).

The impact of the new regulations is yet to be assessed, but many English language providers testify that vocational training does seem to be an incentive for a proportion of their student intake. Kate Swanson, Marketing Manager at Langports English Language College in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, QLD, indicates, “Students appear to be staying longer as the need for English for work increases and the competition for jobs remains high. There also seems to be a trend towards students combining their English studies with a short VET course to hone their professional skills.”

Meanwhile, at West Coast International College of English in Bunbury, WA, Jenny Byatt reports onward enrolment into a Tafe [Technical and Further Education college] is also a draw for students. She notes, “There are more students studying for longer periods, especially in Ielts preparation, in order to enter Tafe [institutions].”

Many providers acknowledge that there will be an effect on enrolments during 2010 based on the new immigration regulations, which were announced in February. Warren Milner of Milner International College of English in Perth, WA, says he would not be surprised if media commentators in Australia are right in predicting further college closures – observing that any institution that may be over-reliant on vocational-prone nationalities (top nationalities are Indian, Chinese, Nepalese, Korean and Thai) may be at risk.

Of course, there was the high profile collapse of Japanese-owned Geos at the beginning of the year – affecting eight schools and over 2,000 students across the country – that set the nervous tone for the year (see LTM, March 2010, page 7). This followed the collapse of Cayman Island-owned Global Campus Management Group late last year, which operated Meridian International School, Meridian International Hotel School, International Design School and International College of Creative Arts, also affecting over 2,000 students.

One positive, perhaps, to be taken from these collapses was the effective Tuition Assurance Schemes (TAS) that kicked in, ensuring that all affected students were placed with another institution for the remainder of their course. Talking about Geos, Olivier Charpenay at the Centre for English Language Teaching at the University of Western Australia in Perth, WA, comments, “By recommending students to enrol in an EA college, [the lesson for agents is] that there is a safety net for students.” (All schools have, by law, to be covered by a TAS scheme, and EA and Acpet both operate such a scheme).

Nevertheless, there is no doubting that Australia’s reputation has taken a knock, with 10 school closures reported in 2009. Because of quality control concerns, the government strengthened the remit of its mandatory Cricos register for all providers, to ensure education was the principal objective of all colleges (see LTM, November 2009, page 6); commissioned MP Bruce Baird to review the entire Esos Act that governs Education Services for Overseas Students; and dropped additional visa fees for students affected by school closure (see LTM, February 2010, page 7). Finally, a Senate enquiry into international student welfare was organised (see page 7) and its findings will be considered by the Council of Australian Governments in its upcoming National International Student Strategy.

In addition, a separate interim Esos Act was agreed by the House, but rejected by the Senate in February. A ruling within the interim Esos Amendment act to cover students’ “consequential costs” involved in a school closure was voted down. Education Minister, Julia Gillard, said the amendment did not provide details of what constituted “consequential costs”, which could include travel, accommodation and food costs, education agent fees and travel and medical insurance. “No economically responsible government could commit to such costs,” she said, according to The Age newspaper.

There are clearly efforts being taken by the Australian authorities to redress any image battering – violence against Indian students and sub-standard education providers, particularly in the vocational sector, chiefly – as well as strategies being applied to avoid a migration rush through an education pathway and ensure students can make the transition to Australian life successfully. The living cost requirement for student visa applicants was also raised from January from AUS$12,000 (US$11,104) to AUS$18,000 (US$16,656).

Some providers welcome the intervention. Fiona Davidson, Marketing Director at Ability Education in Sydney, NSW, says that the review of the Esos Act “is a very positive initiative for the industry – it will protect the international student, the quality brand of Australia and protect the quality operators by removing the bad apples”.

Others lament the lax application of regulations that led to problems surfacing in the first place. All in all, there are mixed feelings about the outlook, despite many institutions reporting a successful 2009.

Despite having seen growth of 15 per cent in 2009 – with a decline from traditional source markets such as Japan and Korea offset by growth from newer markets, particularly the Middle East and Latin America – David Nelson at the Institute of Continuing & Tesol Education at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, QLD, is cautious. “2010 may well be a challenging year, especially for the private sector and for those colleges with a heavy dependency on markets like India or Nepal or the skilled migration markets,” he says. Lynn Lourdes at the Academy of Information Technology in Sydney, NSW, is downbeat. “The government does not have clear regulation at the moment but the announcement of the changes will scare the students away,” she says.

Meanwhile, Davidson – who reports an eight per cent rise in sales last year – is more positive, anticipating 20 per cent growth for 2010. “We expect further growth from Western Europe, China and the Middle East. Numbers are bouncing back from South America as the economy is doing well and more part-time jobs are available here.”

Skilled migration reforms
On 8 February, Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, announced major changes to the General Skilled Migration Program, starting with the news that 20,000 potential migrants will have their applications cancelled and money refunded.

The Migration Occupations in Demand List (MODL) is being revoked and a new more targeted Skilled Occupations List (SOL) is being developed, introduced mid-year and from then on reviewed annually. The Critical Skills List introduced in 2009 is also being phased out.

The points test used to assess migrants is also being overhauled, to ensure “the best and the brightest” are selected to become permanent migrants. A review of the points test will consider whether sufficient points are awarded for work experience and excellence in English, for example. Finally, caps will be imposed for certain occupations and individual states will have some autonomy in deciding their skills needs.

International students likely to be affected by these changes have until 31 December 2012 to apply for a temporary skilled graduate visa on completion of their studies that will enable them to spend up to 18 months in Australia to acquire work experience and seek sponsorship from an employer. Evans said, “We want skilled migrants on terms that work both for Australia and for the migrants themselves. We need a programme with integrity and direction.”

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