Baird’s ESOS Recommendations: Misplaced Diagnosis!!!

I have just put down the 95-paged Report submitted to the OZ Government by Former Liberal MP Bruce Baird recommending ESOS amendments. Find it here. THE AGE informs that

Education Minister Julia Gillard said the government would begin immediately to implement six of the recommendations, including measures to fine colleges that break the rules, and prevent colleges from poaching each other’s students.

The report is historic and the changes if the recommendations are followed will be historic too. Anything historic need not necessarily be positive and I forecast that if all the recommendations are followed to a tee, it will lead to a “historic blunder” and there will be a need for another commissioning for a report just a few years ahead.
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Before I lead on, lets take a synopsis from THE AGE:

Former Liberal MP Bruce Baird yesterday handed down his report, which calls for changes to weed out shonky operators and provide greater protection for students.

Mr Baird said migration policy, which made it easier for people to achieve permanent residency if they studied courses in areas of skill shortages, such as cooking or hairdressing, had distorted the education sector.

”We have permanent residency factories,” he said. ”If you ask any of the good providers, they will quickly name those that they believe are dodgy operators who are rorting the system.”

He said they made up about 20 per cent of the vocational sector.

Colleges would face tougher registration standards, including a sharper focus on their financial resources and business models. Those considered high risk, for example, because they draw heavily from a single source country, would be monitored more closely and bear a greater portion of the cost of industry assurance schemes.

Colleges would be required to provide more information to students and regulators, including details of their student population, facilities and support services and the commissions they pay to agents, information that could in the future form the basis of another My School-style comparison website.

Mr Baird wants a new streamlined system to place students left stranded by college collapses, and in some cases to prevent college closures. This body would also provide refunds to students who could not be placed in a similar course.

Mr Baird also called on NSW and Victoria to join with other Australian states and territories in extending transport concessions to international students.

”Discrimination in terms of travel passes goes to the very heart,” he said. ”These students need to feel part of Australia and I think that is part of it.”

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On the face of it, all this will sound so good and positive and you may question the line that I am taking in this blog. Hence, my explanation:
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Like most of us, Jerome Groopman believes that practitioners of modern medicine are all too human and so are prone to make errors in judgment. But since the doctor’s errors can be fatal, every effort should be made to minimise them. That requires studying medical errors scientifically. This is precisely what the author does in this splendid volume.
The book, he says, “is about what goes on in a doctor’s mind as he or she treats a patient.” Every physician — even the most brilliant — makes a misdiagnosis or chooses a wrong therapy. Groopman differentiates “medical mistake” from “misdiagnosis.” While the former involves prescribing a wrong dose of drug or looking at an X-ray upside down, the latter is about the way doctors think, analyse a situation, or arrive at a diagnosis taking into consideration all the factors available at that time.
A majority of medical errors, according to him, do not qualify as technical mistakes, but are attributable to flaws in the physician’s thinking. He quotes a study of one hundred cases of incorrect diagnosis where inadequate medical knowledge was identified as the reason in only four cases. The rest are all due to what he calls “cognitive-traps,” which are of three types. First is “availability,” where recent or dramatic cases come to mind and colour judgment about the case in hand. Then comes “anchoring,” or short-cut thinking, where the doctor does not consider multiple possibilities but quickly and firmly latches on to a single one. And the third is “attribution,” where stereotypes can prejudice the doctor’s thinking and lead to conclusions that do not flow from the data on hand.
(HOW DOCTORS THINK: Jerome Groopman; Byword Books Pvt. Ltd.)
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Before putting out the recommendations, Baird has provided the arguments and the reasons. Unfortunately, the diagnosis at several instances is totally wrong and in sync with Groopman’s theory. The recent cases have coloured the judgement, short-cut thinkings have disallowed multiple possibilities and stereotyping of agents and private colleges have further led to wrong conclusions. The initiation of the reform is due to the recent “attacks on Indian students” and Baird indicates this in the letter to the Deputy PM right in the beginning of the report. Still, the Indian angle is also absent.
  • Singling out of Private Colleges is misplaced. Baird ignores the role of Public Providers (some Universities and some TAFE) for this mess:
While attacking the role of private providers, there is no mention of the type and the nature of the loophole in the system that they exploited to bring the students onshore other than what we knew already about some of them being “permanent residency factories”.  Simply talking of a nexus between a private provider and their agents is not sufficient. This is where a major glitch occurs. The nexus was not just between Private Colleges and their agents BUT also there was a role-played “knowingly and for financial gain” by some public providers.
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Without this “hand holding” by some Public Providers, the Private Colleges couldn’t have brought the students from overseas markets to the “permanent residency factories”. While the colleges still had to run the programs, public providers simply pocketed a portion of the fees for issuing the packaged enrolment letters and this too knowing fully well that they don’t have to run the course. Diplomas in Cookery in Sydney were packaged with Degrees in Melbourne. Diplomas in Motor Mechanics were packaged with Degrees from Northern Territory and even the Diplomas in Hairdressing were packaged with Degrees in Criminology. This was the SCAM that led to the huge increase in student numbers between 2004 and 2008.  The inappropriate packaging that allowed students to slip through easier visa norms and these Public Providers and Private Colleges were clearly shaking hands even legally. I feel that some Public Providers are more to be blamed as without their packaging the abuse of the system couldn’t have occurred. How can Baird’s report be so one-sided, I really wonder.
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I am not too surprised that the former MP missed it totally considering that despite an extensive resume, he doesn’t seem to have much experience with the “education industry”.  The recommendation that “travel concessions” be offered to international students in NSW and Victoria is welcome BUT is this ambit of ESOS review. However, considering that Bruce Baird was the Transport Minister in the NSW government at some stage, experience counts here.
  • Education Providers and Education Agents.
The report does detail the need for education providers taking responsibility of their agents. But, was this not part of the ESOS even earlier. The report lays out some clear norms on use of agents mid way into the course, which is welcome. However, what is not welcome is that the report confuses the distinctness of the role played by agents in offshore markets with some agents onshore. It quotes example of flyers being distributed at railway stations in Melbourne and the adverts that incite students to switch Universities. By putting all the ingredients into the same bowl and churning, the image of agent blurs giving out a stink.
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Baird quotes providers to indicate that agents run the roost and get paid commissions of 50%. How ridiculous that none of the quotes in this reference are from TAFE or Universities. Can Baird not make some differentiation here to ensure that the Government doesn’t trip when implementing the recommendation? Which Public Provider or a reputable Private Provider pays this type of commission and why should they? The quote was from a language school and no wonder it doesn’t reflect the reality in India. Mr. Baird, the standard commission paid by the University is 10% of first year fees and hence if we take an undergrad degree and average it out, we are looking at only about 3.33% of the total fee. For a two year Masters, it will be 5% of the total fees. Mr Baird, bring about a balance in your report considering the sensitiveness of the issue rather than exaggeration from selective quotations to further an argument. The decision takers will only look at your recommendations and set norms for the entire industry and future of Australian education.
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Asking institutions to provide details of the commission to students is another huge blunder. This is not in line with what is being done around the world and not desirable. The contract of institution and agent is a private agreement. The ESOS can address the issue of unrealistic commissions by some language schools or private colleges through putting a cap on the total commissions quite easily and this will address the issue for all. All students counseled by agents are told and hence are aware that the reason why they are not being charged for the services is that the institutions will be paying the agents. There is nothing really more than this.
  • Baird overlooks the loopholes of the AL system:
Bruce Baird also makes no mention of how the system of generalization provided by the AL mechanism has lead to “low quality” students getting preference over “better quality and genuine” students for student visas. He may argue that this is not part of the ESOS and is for DIAC to fix BUT if he can make recommendations on transport subsidy to the state governments of NSW and Victoria, can he not make recommendations to another federal department of the Government of Australia considering he is doing the report for the Federal Government.
  • Missing Indian link and the successful experiments by AEI in India:
Bruce Baird notes the difficulty of extending the Australian legislations to foreign markets and this is where I find his not mentioning the role AEI has been playing in India with the promotion and support of self-regulating AAERI, to be another blunder. AAERI can be a model for all other markets. Just this Monday, AAERI General Body has fine-tuned its own constitution and has not just made it stricter but has introduced “third party integrity check” for all its members. The General Body meeting held at the Australian High Commission in New Delhi was addressed by AEI and DIAC and AEI counsellor clearly acknowledged and appreciated the role being played by AAERI in the interest of Australian Education Industry. Australian High Commissioner in New Delhi too is appreciative of AAERI’s contribution. Mr Baird, the only way to implement the ESOS Act legally in India is through the use of a body like AAERI. AAERI is registered in India though promoted by OZ Govt and in its code requires that its members follow ESOS and hence it leads to the implementation of ESOS in India. Do you get my point, Sir? Don’t tell me that you did not hear of AAERI at all over the last 8 months. AAERI seems to be the only point where the Australian Opposition supports the Government.  I quote from an Australian Media Report (26th October 2009):

It’s the proposals affecting agents that have stakeholders worried. They would require Australian providers to work only with agents who had completed recognized training courses such as the one run by Professional International Education Resources (PIER), and who belonged to professional bodies such as the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India.

“AAERI … has a code of ethical practice, the agent activities are streamlined, the students are given authentic information, and the agent charges are fair,” the Opposition’s spokesperson on international education, Dr Andrew Southcott, told Parliament – although he also pointed out that most agents in India hadn’t joined the association.

Just to clarify, ALL active agents in India are members of AAERI and after the recent changes to its constitution; all members also have to clear the PIER’s EATC in addition to third party integrity checks. There are clear schedule of fees and full transparency. Advertising norms that have ensured over years that the quality of adverts of AAERI members is far superior to those of agents in the “unorganized” sector. Australian High Commission site clearly recommends students to use AAERI members. Mr. Baird, I do think you missed this somehow.
  • DIAC and eVisa system:
Baird’s suggestions that DIAC notifies education providers whenever they suspend an eVisa agent are also misplaced. The DIAC list has always been a public listing and available on the immigration website. There should be some role for privacy to be maintained too as there are many reasons on which an agent may be suspended from the eVisa process and those reasons can include 1) volume requirements and 2) inaction on a login for more than 28 days. The eVisa mechanism is already being tightened a fair bit.

  • Baird overlooks Aussie Government’s commercialization of Education:
Mr Bruce Baird, would have done well to recommend to the Australian Federal Government to take a political decision and still stop the transfer to AUSTRADE of some of the educational roles that currently is with AEI. Treasury announced last year, plans to shift responsibility for promotion from Australian Education International to Austrade. Announced as part of the government’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, Treasury said it expected to reap $8.6 million in savings over four years. The government said the move would facilitate a “whole of government” approach to promoting education. It will be effective from July 1. I know that it has been planned earlier but the circumstances and scenario has changed and hence to allow this changeover to occur will be the historic blunder.
The Australian in INDUSTRY QUERIES AUSTRADE ROLE writes:

THE international education sector is expected to renew its call for an independent body to advise on strategy after being surprised and disappointed by the government making Austrade responsible for promoting the industry.

The industry is worried the move risks sending a message that international education is valued largely as an export earner. It is complaining that it was not properly consulted and is concerned the announcement by Treasury was more about cost cuts.

“I don’t think this is the best option,” president of the International Education Association of Australia Stephen Connelly said.

“I think it sends a particular message about international eduction that at this time is probably the wrong message.

“It is disappointing that a decision like this has been made with no real consultation,” he said.

AND Times of India in its Editorial article “Fix the WELCOME sign” says:

Having assured all parties that international students are not just a commercial opportunity for Australia, the government has quietly transferred responsibility for international education marketing from the education portfolio to Austrade – Australian Trade Commission – whose only goal is commercialisation. In India, that will confirm suspicions that while Australia is investing in scholarships and research collaboration, at heart a carpetbagger approach prevails.

This Jekyll and Hyde approach undermines the long-term value of international education for Australia. Regrettably, the present inquiries have amassed uninsightful information and ineffective recommendations in anodyne reports that do little to calm the atmosphere, let alone improve the situation.

Concluding remarks:
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My assessment of Baird’s report doesn’t mean that there are no positives at all. There are and they are in plenty. However, I am not sure if the report lives up to the expectations. Many knew whatever has been reported, and some could have done a much better job in lesser time.
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A piece of Art doesn’t fetch the price because of what we see on the wall or that it makes sense. Its value is in the signature at the corner of the frame. Sometimes, confusing brush strokes on a canvas by a politician fetches more than an art by a trained artist. This is our world.

17 Comments

  1. 1. Change of Provider regulations should bar any change between different assessment levels onshore and also any change of provider till 1 full calendar year. This is in line with NZ and UK.

    2. There is a positive correlation with the level of English and non genuine International students. Higher the English level more the genuine student.

    3. AAERI members are accountable if there is a conflict of interest between the student and Education provider. Hence in the best interest of the student and Education provider, the AAERI member becomes their neutral partner to work with. This should be strongly recommended to all the Education providers in Australia.

    4. • Education provider needs to credit the Tuition fees received in an ESCROW / contingent account and should not be treated as income until the visa is granted of the International student. This will expedite the refunds process at the time of visa rejection or liquidation of the Education provider. At the same time the Education provider will not have access to these funds for incurring expenses before the visa approval of the international student.

    5. eCOE should include the name of the recruiting company which will further pressurize the agent for supplying prospective and current international students with accurate information

    6. The moment an agent is appointed it should be included on the AEI site in such a way that a student wanting to go to X institution from Y country should come to know as to who the agents are. This will cure some ills and give importance to the process.

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    1. Excellent inputs. I really like the one where an agent’s name be included in the ECOE. Fantastic suggestion.
      Also the one that suggests the website to have an Agent Zone by which a student can easily check as to who is agent of which institution. Doesn’t British Council already have such a thing for UK.

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  2. Congrats on putting your thoughts out even at the risk of being the odd man out. Definitely a wrong diagnosis can lead to no cure. Your comments about the perception in India, when the role of promotion of Education moves from AEI to Austrade has to be taken seriously if the credibility of Australian Education is to be upheld it has to be kept more than an arms length from any whiff of commercialisation. The whole issue is quite complex and in trying to fit his recommendations into the “stronger, simpler, smarter ESOS” jingoism, Mr Baird almost tries to apply the “one size fits all” approach. I wish life was so simple!

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    1. You say: A wrong diagnosis can lead to no cure. I say: A wrong diagnosis can make one worse…
      I agree with you the “stronger, simpler, smarter” jingoism is too much of a simplification and Australia has always suffered due to such simplifications. Assessment Level regime is one example of this. One size doesnot and cannot fit all.

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  3. Many great ideas go unexecuted, and many great executioners are without ideas. One without the other is worthless.

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  4. > Change of Provider should be banned Completely and any students wishing this has to apply new visa again at origin country only or any change of provider till the 1st Course eCOE to be Completed and No further eCOE for the same students to be issued in any case by DIAC

    > No Tuition Fees should be transferred at provider account till students start his study at provider (International Bank Drafts should be held at agents office only) this will remove the process of refund incase of visa rejection or liquidation of the Education provider. At the same time the Education provider will not have access to these funds for incurring expenses before the arrival of the international student.

    > In case of any provider has issue on holding the drafts at agents office in that case they can go for Third Party Say “”” AAERI Office “””” Can manage this activity and on every such tranjection agent as well provider will pay the cost to AAERI for managing this )

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  5. Ravi, overall I agree with your assessment. I am also in the middle of an assessment and intend to contact all Private Education Providers to see if we can formulate a plan to put our concerns to the politicians to bring some common sense back into this discussion and cease the attacks on our industry and on our many reputable agents. This is just more of the same problem that Australian society has now – we are governed by politicians & bureaucrats that are only concerned by arse covering and think we live in a fairy floss world where everyone can be protected from every possible harm. Who is this Bruce Baird and what are his credentials to advise on this industry? Just another bureaucrat that has never had to go out and earn a dollar for himself. Will keep you advised of progress as these attacks on us have got to stop.

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    1. Hello Craig,

      ACPET should certainly stand up now and so do UNIVERSITIES AUSTRALIA esp the GO8. Do keep me posted. The report is just a rehash of available information and there is just nothing innovative or new.

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  6. I went through some of your comments and the best I can say is that it is looks like the comments of a sad agent who is loosing his business big time.

    You dont stand up for your own country men who suffer in Oz but support the Australian point of view as you only see $$$ behind every country men. Put the self interest behind and take to national interest.

    Why dont you agents try to be more human??

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  7. Yes Ravi I agree with you that some of the recommendations are praise worthy but there are some which have to be probed in a proper manner so that a correct inference is drawn and facts are placed before the decision makers otherwise it will be detrimental to AGENTS AND THE EDUCATION PROVIDERS/ INDUSTRY IN AUSTRALIA. The PERMANENT RESIDENT FACTORIES was a handiwork of P.Providers, their trusted agents and the Public Providers of which the report is silent. Without the Public Providers joining hands and pocketing easy money the birth of PR Factories was not possible at all. How the Public Providers are left out baffles us as they knew very well that the show was not complete unless they featured in and played a key role to change the assessment level. Another baffling outcome of the report is the commission structure and here I would love to quote that A Little Knowledge/ Learning is a Dangerous thing otherwise commission to the tune of 50% should not have been quoted. Well Ravi has given a right quote and that is true. Therefore, my request is to please stick to the correct figures which can be confirmed from the public and private providers. If there is a need to cap on the percentage offered by private providers then please go ahead and that is the remedy. Also, commissions is the remuneration to the agent for task performed and is nothing illegal. Many of us don’t charge any money from the students and in fact all our services are free of costs and therefore please bear in mind that the commissions we earn are from our hard earned labour and are not kick backs and has to be treated with lot of dignity and honesty.

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  8. How the Education should be deemed is open to interpretition by various sections according to their whims and fancies. If Education is seen in its purest form then “Profit Oriented Fee Structure” is a sin irrespective of provider type – either public or private. Several countries in continental Europe see education in much different way than the English world. These Eoropean countries bring in few meritorious students from around the World without asking for fee. USA’s higher education brought in brilliant students from around the World to assist in their research projects.
    Combine this with the issue of Genuine Student. Who is a genuine student ? One who has lot of money or one one who has excellent academic record? Students from few Middle East countries perform very poorly in Australia but are never termed as non-genuine students.
    If Education is deemed as a source of Profit either by Public providers or Private Providers, then if they are not PR factories then possibly they may be just Degree Mills.
    Riding on the strength of English alone or lack of education infrastructure in few of the south east Asian nations cannot be the basis of succeeding in Market like India.
    Further even in India majority of private education providers survive on the promise of “100% placement” and even successful public providers too are judged on this basis, this gives the rise to issue of placement after completion of education and thus the issue of PR gets in. Otherwise at this stage of India only few hundred students who are looking for an expensive holiday can be secured, if they can be secured at all.

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    1. Education as a pathway to work or PR was not unique to OZ. World over international students use this pathway. In US, UK, Canada, NZ too. Many commentators have no clue of all this. Knee jerk reactions everywhere.

      Ravi Sent from my iPhone

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  9. Few thoughts:

    1. Most students don’t want to spend any time checking who is the agent of which institution.

    2. There are too many “rogue agents” both onshore and offshore. They make false promises, assist with fraudulent documents and applications, withold important information for desperate students.

    3. Majority of “non-genuine” Indian students approach such rogue agents because they know ONLY these agents can provide them with “short cut solutions” to their messed up student visas and TR/PR ambitions.

    4. Combination of “rogue agents” + “non-genuine” students lead to “dodgy providers”, where they are promised of “cheap courses/weekend classes/no exams/less assignments/assistance with work experience etc.”

    5. It is kind of a fashion to change education provider once the student lands in Australia. In many cases, the student had decided to change the provider as soon as they came out of the airport. They did not even bother to go to the provider premises. Their decisions are mostly influenced by friends who are studying in cheap colleges etc. They know that they must fund their own studies by working. So, less fees seems to be the solution!

    6. Another twist to no. 5 above is: Some students were apparently misguided by “bigger Agents” into chosing Degree courses to “enhance their visa chances”. The students were told that “diplomas may not get them visas”. Students could not cope with “higher fees + study levels”. So they decided to change to diplomas. This is where “rogue agents” played a major part again, by pushing students to “dodgy providers”. Students could have chosen “good colleges” but the presence of “rogue agents” is so obvious and multiplied (with leaflets being distributed at every corner of Melbourne city and ads in Indian newspapers), there is no way a student can tell a good agent from a bad one.

    to be continued…

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  10. BAIRD RECOMMENDS TRANSPORT CONCESSIONS TO INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS and this is so so welcome. The State Government in Victoria and NSW are of the same party as the Federal Government and so what is the hurdle.

    This is a demand of all associated with the industry for years now. Even the Indian Government wanted Aussie Govt to do this. The opposition blasted the state government on this.

    But now that the talk is on, I am not sure if the Opposition is still singing in the same tune.

    The Age writes:

    Could we expect more from a Ted Baillieu-led government? It seems not. While the state opposition has not missed the opportunity to critique the inaction of the Brumby government, it has yet to say how it would act.

    See the link http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/for-international-students-fares-are-not-fair-20100310-pye4.html

    Like

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