NSW corruption body urges less agent reliance

30 April, 2015

The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in New South Wales, Australia, has urged universities to reduce the size of their agent networks in a report on managing fraud associated with international students. The call comes at a time when the potential for an industry-led quality framework for agents is being investigated.


In the report, Learning the Hard Way: Managing Corruption Risks Associated With International Students at Universities in NSW, ICAC argues that the competitive forces of the international student recruitment business have created a tension between generation of revenue and compliance with academic standards.

The result of the recruitment drive was that often “universities were operating in a large number of often corrupt markets, seeking revenue without consideration of the cost of managing students with low capabilities”, ICAC said in the report.

In the 12 key corruption prevention initiatives it outlines, ICAC suggests, “limiting the number of overseas agents with which universities work, where possible”. It also calls for the restriction of academics – rather than dedicated international recruitment staff – entering into agent/partner agreements, increased due diligence and monitoring of agents, and the formation of stronger links with trusted agents.

ICAC found that around 60 per cent of international students at universities in NSW were recruited via agents and that universities had up to 300 agent partners, but argues the choice of markets and agents has often been too loose. It states that every university in NSW reported some form of corruption from an agent.

It also concludes that large agencies have high bargaining power, particularly in key markets like China, and suggests that universities sometimes too softly scrutinise such partners for fear of losing students.

Alternative commission structures for agents are suggested as a way to ensure genuine, capable students are sent, including staggered payments up until final graduation and a tiered commission structure, based on student performance.

The report focuses on English language ability, and claims that “English tests that form part of the entry requirement are frequently falsified”. It adds, “Further, evidence of qualifications is sometimes forged and in some cases, the wrongdoing is being facilitated by the universities’ own recruitment agencies.”

ICAC suggests that average Ielts entry requirements in NSW are too low, and that the lack of English skills creates a sub-industry of essay mills, ghost writing and fraud. “Initiatives aimed at reducing credential fraud and raising Ielts scores can decrease, if not eliminate, the gap between student capabilities and academic standards,” it says.

The competitive nature of recruitment also creates internal corruption practices and a lowering of standards, ICAC said. “With universities in NSW financially dependent on the success of international students, academics may be encouraged to admit students they would otherwise reject, to turn a blind eye to cheating, and to mark the work of poor-performing students favourably to allow them to pass.”

Streamlined visa processing (SVP), which was introduced by the government in 2012, has placed more burden on universities for vetting applications. “Universities across the sector have, consequently, adopted a far more targeted approach towards agents, trying to use agents the university thinks will provide graduating students,” the report says.

ICAC urges more institutional partnerships as a way of recruiting international students, although it acknowledges such a method can never fully replace the agent model and admits there can also be quality concerns with such arrangements.

Among the other non-agent-related initiatives, ICAC recommends developing niche programmes, considering the full costs associated with international students of different capabilities, and separating compliance and business development functions within institutions.

In response to the ICAC report, a Four Corners documentary programme broadcast by Australian TV channel ABC also investigated issues of corruption in the industry. The programme purports to show study travel agencies at a fair in China suggesting that academic transcripts can be falsified and easier English language exams can be arranged.

The programme also discusses issues of plagiarism by and soft marking of international students at university in Australia, particularly within the nursing sector.

As previously reported, Australia has released a draft national strategy for international education strategy for industry consultation with a government commitment to support research into an industry-driven quality assurance system for agents.

Supported by the Department of Education and Training, the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA), has announced a project to scope the potential for a quality framework for agents.

The project, which recently finished an industry consultation period, will investigate options such as a code of ethics and an accreditation system.

“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when it comes to regulation and quality assurance of education agents,” said IEAA President, Brett Blacker. “Any potential framework needs to be fit-for-purpose and based on the unique attributes of Australia’s system.”

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