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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.