3 weeks since 4 Corners “Cash Cows”: Universities in “denial”,Visa tightening expectation and Murdoch as a “scape-goat”.

On 6th May 2019, ABC 4 Corners aired it’s investigative report highlighting how the Universities were lowering their “English Requirements” for short term commercial gains. I too was featured in the same where I was particularly focussed on ensuring that “offshore education agents” are not made an easy scapegoat in this theme where the onus for setting the English Requirement for admission was solely of the Universities.

In very brief:

  • Ever since “streamlining visa processing” was introduced, most Universities have been able to “set their own English requirements” and this means that there are Universities who have waived English language tests such as an IELTS and instead have accepted alternative evidences including a simple declaration that the Medium of Instruction was English at the previous education provider overseas. This has been the weak-link and Department of Home Affairs has repeatedly indicated that this alternative is unacceptable and doesn’t meet their guidelines. However large numbers of Universities have taken advantage of the online visa process and the streamlining whereby even though Home Affairs doesn’t accept the alternative, visas have been granted and sometimes within minutes.
  • There continues to be large numbers of International students now in Australia who have very limited English skills. Most of these students have not been able to cope with the study load and thus transfer on to lighter institutions after a semester of study. Some say that even this movement was pre-planned and the system has been circumvented using institutions who applied streamlining in first place.
  • The 4 corners report focussed on a case study around Murdoch University but as I pointed out on that, this is not an issue that is isolated but over the last two years, most Universities are guilty of having taken advantage of the “loophole” in some dose. Now most have fixed it but to name Murdoch is a little unfair. Other Universities who may even be “bigger fishes” have certainly got away un-named and are quietly fixing the norms internally.

Now let’s look at the reactions of a few since the airing of the investigation:

NTEU:

If you watched the Four Corners program last night, like me you would probably have experienced a mix of emotions; disappointment that our sector is suffering reputational damage yet again, concern for the welfare of international students and the potential for a racist backlash, anger at some of the behavior described, and great admiration for those who chose to speak out.

If you didn’t watch it you can catch up on iView here.

Our two highest priorities right now are to ensure that whistleblowers are properly protected and to support students who understandably feel under siege today; but in coming days we will have more to say about the need for public accountability, especially at Murdoch where we first called for an open and transparent examination of the issues back in September.

NTEU will of course be responding with a formal statement, and we will be responding to media requests for comment, but I am interested in hearing from you with your response. As we have seen from the program, the voices of workers in our sector, both Higher Ed and VET, are the most powerful. Please tell us what you think to help us frame our statements on this very important issue, by simply replying to this email. I will of course keep your contributions confidential and anonymous unless you choose otherwise.

This is an important moment when the eyes of the public are on us and our sector. I encourage you to use this opportunity to have your voice heard.

In unity,

Alison Barnes, National President

Education Minister, Dan Tehan:

Education Minister Dan Tehan has raised concerns about the English language skills of international students with the independent regulator of Australia’s universities and asked for recommendations to strengthen admission standards.

Amid heightened scrutiny of Australia’s international education boom, Mr Tehan said he had received reports of students not having adequate language skills and sought information on any “systemic failure” in the sector’s adherence to standards.

But what is bothersome is the approach of the Australian Universities largely. They (especially the International Directors) went into a denial huddle. It is an understandable  reaction. Some tried to subtly keep the spotlight shining on Murdoch when they knew that they even had a home to clean and cover in their dirty laundry that was out in public glare. Phil Honeywood (IEAA) was immediate to issue a media release which didn’t really go into the essence of the program and was purely defensive. He should have been also contacted by the investigators and knowing him, he would have contributed. The time available with him between the show and his media release was not even adequate for him to cross-check to know if the problem didn’t exist within the sector. Most Universities actually want the issue to pass in the hope that they don’t get identified for their own conduct. Several “big fishes” were actually relieved that they were not named. (University of Tasmania conducted themselves admirably by acknowledging that they had waived the English Language Tests in the case of students who had provided evidence that their education was in English and then making the changes.)

So I do feel that Murdoch was a scapegoat largely and there are providers who are happy that way. Had the 4 corners done a followup story (as they tweeted), situation would have been far worse.

One of the senior members at a University on her social media immediately took a shot at the messenger itself and labelled it “sensationalist, unbalanced, borderline racist and ratings chaser…”. It was an immediate outburst within hours of the program. However not much from anyone else. Clearly by then all had the chance to check with their own teams and found that their own systems have had to be corrected over the last two years following evidence of abuse.

There is evidence that the “loophole” was an “open secret” within the International teams at the Universities and admission requirements had been set to attract students who are not able to meet the English Language Test requirements. Let me share a slide from a presentation made by the Chair of AUIDF. This was in mid of last year and the presentation was his way of highlighting how some Universities were taking advantage of the loophole:

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 10.30.26 am

However, what the Department of Home Affairs has been putting out to the Education Providers states:

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 10.34.28 am

The last para of the above is quite clear. However the problem still lies in the way streamlining works. Most visa applications simply get decided and the COEs have a way of indicating that the English Proficiency has been met even with the English Test waivers on the basis of MOI letters. This when entered, the online visa system assumes that the requirement has been met.

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 10.39.42 am

However, streamlining is not working is evident from the following update from the Department of Home Affairs where from Nepal they have now required that irrespective of streamlining, the student applications meet the financial and english requirements set by them. In a special update to providers, they indicated:

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 10.42.52 am

We are also hearing of increased student visa refusals and Department of Home Affairs has informed that :

  • Simplified Student Visa Framework: More broadly the student visa framework itself is undergoing an appraisal process. Various indicators such as onshore activity, refusals, provider transfers, risk and compliance may be included as a consideration for future processing.  Work is still underway and we will share as things develop.

There are aspects of the SSVF which is good and it will not be ideal to return to the earlier system. Especially pertaining to financial requirements to be met by a student. Had the Universities not taken advantage of the “loophole” for short term gains, the situation could have easily been averted. To expect Universities to apply the visa-linked screening is expecting a bit too much. There is a conflict of interest here.

I believe that it is time for the Universities to come out of the “denial” and fix it instead of shooting the messenger. And from what I hear, there are still 1-2 education providers who are continuing to issue COEs granting a waiver on the english test score and accepting alternatives which are simply inadequate.

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5 Comments

    1. Thanks Raj. It is an important issue that we are dealing with. Why do we have to mess it up and then look at cleaning the mess. Focussing on longevity of the sector should be ahead of short term gains. Recruiting students who can’t cope with the level of English is the very first misstep. These students will move soon. Offshore agencies that assisted in recruitment will not be paid for their services and the compliance will be affected.

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      1. Dear Ravi ji ,
        I agree with you in totality and support your efforts in the interest Industry and would also like to add my views to your campaign / mission that :
        The stakeholders must understand that basis of English waiver being given by few Institutions is not the medium of instruction as English at School / college level and /or English grades at Secondary & Post Secondary level but the genuinity of academic documents itself submitted to claim such waiver ! There are few agents in some particular regions /areas who are otherwise not an authorised agent of any Australian University but their Social media accounts are full of visa grant notification . I can make a statement being a responsible agent that the situation can improve if DIBP and /or Universities start asking for official transcripts to be forwarded directly from Board / University at admission and or ECOE stage . No surprise if hundars of students are deported should proper back checks on academics be conducted even after enrollment

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Wonderful Blog and It’s well researched and was totally required as there has been a lot of confusion all across and I totally agree that Murdoch has been made a scapegoat as many other Universities has been doing the same thing. We look forward to better systems and the universities are going to fix the systems and its a lesson learnt for them.

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    1. When I assess the whole situation, Murdoch evidence may have looked weightier considering it had academics speaking out as whistleblowers and the internal emails were made public. However if there is a real soul searching conducted the “bigger fishes” who got entangled knowingly and unknowingly in the business of waiving IELTS will surprise all. The final good will be if the system is fixed. The case of OECC is also of being caught up in all this. What wrong did they do? They followed the University guidelines on entry requirement only. The other claims made against them will need to be substantiated.

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