Monday, March 7, 2011

Student Visa Review - a chance to remake the international education environment

As we await the release of the discussion paper which will guide the parameters of submissions to the Knight Review of the Australian Student Visa system, it's timely to consider just how important this review is. The Knight review is the third in a series of reviews commissioned by the government since the industry's fall from grace following the Indian student attacks in Melbourne in 2009, subsequent lurches in government policy and the first decline in enrollments seen for over a decade.

The first review investigated student safety by the Australian Senate and the second was undertaken by Bruce Baird looking at the ESOS Act. Both considered issues in the direct glare of publicity surrounding the attacks on Indian students and their conclusions were filtered by a Government seeking to act to right perceived wrongs. While both reviews affirmed the positive nature of the industry and its practices overall, attention was drawn to concerns around about poor regulation allowing some private colleges to trade without due oversight, the availability of migration outcomes for hospitality, hairdressing and community service courses ballooning enrollments in the VET sector and the arrival of students who did not have enough funds to support themselves adequately. Although these matters principally revolved around a few geographic locations (Melbourne, Sydney), a relatively small number of institutions and two or three nationalities of students: the attempts to fix these issues knocked everybody off-balance from universities to well-run small colleges who had never offered a migration focused course.

The government quickly changed three things: the nexus between migration and VET courses was effectively severed, all providers had to be re-registered and the amount of money students needed to show they had for living costs per year rose from $12,000 to $18,000. Coinciding with the GFC, the much increased competition for students from the UK, US and Canada, and the negative publicity Australian education had sustained from the student attacks, this last measure in particular has been a hammer blow in reducing Australian institutions competitiveness in attracting students to study here.

The penny has dropped to some extent, and the Knight review appears to be a sincere attempt to explore ways to assist the industry to recover while maintaining the integrity of the student visa system and the support of the Australian community. It's worth remembering that the ease of obtaining a student visa is the most important factor in institutions recruiting students from the major markets of China and India; consider if there were no barriers at all then almost every institution would be full to bursting point. Of course, barriers to discern appropriate students from others who would come here to work or for other reasons are essential and the Knight review gives us an opportunity to explore the structure of a student visa system which has remained pretty well unchanged since 2001. If we get the conditions for a student visa correct, we virtually guarantee a healthy international education sector for the foreseeable future and the consequent economic and social benefit it brings us.

So in the broadest terms, what is good about the current system, and what's bad?

On the positive side, the conditions a student needs to meet to gain a visa are clear and un-ambiguous. This is very important and compares favorably to the US system for example whereby a student has an unstructured interview with an Officer from the Department of Homeland Security, any reason for a refusal is often unclear and is the sourse of angst for many US-bound students.

Also, the Australian system seeks to assess the risk of a student breaching the conditions of their student visa while in Australia, this is also a sensible and reasonable approach.

However, how it seeks to assess that risk is it's principal weakness in my view. Alone of all countries, the Australian system separates students into categories depending on the educational sector they intend to study within, and makes value judgements about the risks associated with that sector as a whole. All higher education courses are judged as posing the same risk, all VET courses the same risk, all ELICOS courses and so on. Thus, for example, every VET institution (public or private), is affected by the recruitment practices of all the other VET providers. Their own behaviour is in effect irrelevant. An institution can enroll unsuitable students, in the knowledge that they will not suffer any negative consequences themselves, only that the overall sector may be adversly affected. This is what happened with the Colleges referred to earlier, spruiking migration outcomes and allowing their students to work rather than than study- why should they care, when every VET provider will take the blame.

There is an obvious solution. Make every institution fully accountable for the students that they recruit themselves. If their students breach visa conditions above an established level, the institution itself should find it more difficult to gain visas for subsequent students through an increased risk profile. Conversely, if an institution demonstrates that their students are complying with visa conditions, it should find it easier to recruit more via a lower risk assessment profile. New providers could begin at a default level until enough data about their practices have been produced. This form of feedback loop would stamp out poor practice very quickly, and the statistics are already available for current providers for such assessments to be made now.

There is another way in which the separation of assessment levels into sectors for student visa issuance creates distortion and inequity. There are many courses which may have the same function, structure and purpose as one another but for a variety of legitimate reasons are accredited by different bodies and thus are considered as belonging to different sectors. They then attract different assessment levels for student visa applications for no logical reason. For example, there are foundation courses (preparatory courses for entry to undergraduate programs) which all meet the same national standards but some are accredited as VET courses and some as Non-award courses. Strangely, the Non-award courses are assessed as less risky for some countries. In another case, there are Diplomas of Business accredited as VET or Higher Education courses but they are effectively the same type of course. No prizes for guessing which ones are treated the most favorably. There are other examples.

Hopefully, the Knight review will provide the opportunity for the government to have the courage to make fundamental changes to the student visa system, and not just tinker with a few marginal issues. if institutions are systematically encouraged to take responsibility for the type of students they recruit, if institutions can benefit directly by playing a part in upholding the integrity of the Student Visa System rather than being treated as part of a sector: we will have taken a huge step forward.