‘Cruel, unethical and illegal’: How foreign students are being exploited

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Foreign students are being deceived by education agents over Australia’s crippling cost of living, pushed into unsuitable degrees, and charged thousands of dollars in upfront fees despite the agents being paid a recruitment commission by universities.

One agent said companies have been known to blackmail students who want to change courses or leave the country, threatening to report them to Home Affairs if they complain.

International student and president of Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association, Weihong Liang Credit: Steven Siewert

On Tuesday the Herald revealed that public universities in NSW spent at least $147 million last year on commission payments, with the use of unregulated agents reaching an all-time high across the country, and students in the dark on the portion of their fees paid to brokers.

Sydney University Chinese international student and president of the Postgraduate Student Association Weihong Liang said students increasingly relied on offshore agents who urged students to use their services or risk being rejected.

Liang said many Chinese agencies charged students thousands of dollars, on top of any commission they received from universities. Some also had relationships with onshore agents, who would pay overseas brokers for clients, he said.

No university would reveal the commission paid, but the peak body for agents says the industry standard is about 15 per cent of first-year fees.

“The university buys students from [agents] to [come here and] pay the tuition fee, it looks really bad,” Liang said.

Liang wants universities to use resources spent on agent fees to instead build a better centralised application system, with more one-on-one support from institution staff.

There are thousands of agents in Australia and overseas who work with Australian universities and vocational institutions, but there is no regulation, mandatory registration or training in the growing sector.

Instead, it is up to the institutions to monitor the agents they work with.

Andres Sayago, who runs a small education agency and has campaigned against the exploitation of students, wants to see regulations and restrictions introduced for agents.

“Anyone can run them, I know of student agencies run by international students,” he said.

“There are strict requirements for migration agents that should be similar for student agencies.”

Sayago, who has worked predominantly with students from his native Colombia, said he knew of students who were blackmailed by agencies by threatening to call Home Affairs to cancel their visas if they changed courses.

“This is cruel, unethical and illegal,” he said.

“If universities want to use agents they have to make sure they resource those functions because it does take time and effort to really find out how your agents behave”

Sydney University Postgraduate Student Association said students who used recruitment agents felt exploited and treated differently by the university.

“[The association] is concerned that this practice bonds students to agents and discourages students from seeking out independent sources of information at both the beginning and throughout their study,” its submission to a Sydney University roundtable said.

Liang said students were often misled by overseas agencies who downplayed the high cost of living, gave deceptive visa advice and encouraged them to enrol in degrees they were not suited to.

Eastern Institute of Technology Associate Professor Pii-Tuulia Nikula, an expert in education agents, said Australia was one of the first countries to make widespread use of the brokers.

She said while the good agents provided a valuable service to students and universities, it was well-known that unscrupulous agents had been known to mislead students about educational outcomes and opportunities.

“If universities want to use agents they have to make sure they resource those functions because it does take time and effort to really find out how your agents behave,” she said.

Nikula said it appeared the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TESQA) had little oversight over universities’ use of education agents.

In response to a freedom of information request by Nikula asking for information on any investigations regarding institutions’ obligations relating to agents between 2018 and 2023, TEQSA in October responded that there were no records.

A TEQSA spokesperson said the watchdog wrote to all providers in August outlining significant risks to compliance in the areas of recruitment, admission and support of overseas students. It is currently assessing these risks with several providers.

A Sydney University spokeswoman said it clearly identified authorised agents and provided them with regular and detailed training each year.

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