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Joint Standing Committee on Migration
19/09/2018
Efficacy of current regulation of Australian migration agents

DaSILVA, Ms Ana Regina, Chairperson, International Student Education Agents Association

PARSONSON, Mr Robert, Member, International Student Education Agents Association

SESTAK, Mr Michal, Member, International Student Education Agents Association

Committee met at 10:04

CHAIR ( Mr Wood ): I declare open this public hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration for its inquiry into the current regulation of migration agents. In accordance with the community's resolution of 12 October 2016, this hearing will be broadcast on the parliament's website and the proof and official transcripts of proceedings will be published on the parliament's website. I remind members of the media who may be present or listening on the web of the need to fairly and accurately report the proceedings of the committee.

I now call on the representatives of the International Student Education Agents Association to give evidence. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to discussions.

Mr Parsonson : Thank you for the opportunity to present to the Joint Standing Committee on Migration and to have time for the International Student Education Agents Association, ISEAA, to provide some information on the place of education agents in the Australian international education system. ISEAA plans to work with state and federal governments, education providers and peak bodies in the consumer protection of students and to build training and professional development for education agents. ISEAA has a constitution, a code of conduct and is bound by the ESOS Act around education agents and the agent code of ethics. It will be governed by a board of seven directors, who have been appointed. I have recently been appointed as the executive officer. Ms DeSilva is the vice president, and Michael Sestak is a member. Michael is also a registered migration agent.

ISEAA has been many years in the making, but officially launched this week in Brisbane at the Symposium on Leading Education Recruitment, SYMPLED 2018. This is the second education agent event to bring together education agents, providers, government and industry. This year we had speakers from the Department of Education and Training, the Department of Home Affairs, the Overseas Students Ombudsman's office and Education New Zealand. A lot of attention was on best practice and to ensure a better dialogue was achieved between government, education agents and industry.

Issues such as student accommodation and exploitation were also approached and how education agents can actually assist in being effective in reaching international students pre-departure with information. The overriding theme was that in the overwhelming majority of cases education agents do the right thing: the right student in the right course. In many hundreds of thousands of cases there are very few issues with education agents. The Overseas Students Ombudsman, who presented, had only three per cent of their complaints directed at education agents.

DET estimates that there are some 7,300 agents actively working with Australian providers. They deliver 75 per cent of the international students to Australia. The industry is very large. It's a global industry. We are in, of course, direct competition with Canada, the UK, the USA and New Zealand. Australia has done very well and has very high satisfaction rates with students. Therefore the regulation of education agents by a body, such as MARA, has been certainly looked at, but deemed as not as not practical by industry and by others. The industry is global and education agents, like migration agents, are offshore and out of the jurisdictional reach of the Australian government. Education agents also provide much more than the narrow band of migration advice. They have advice about going into courses, career advice and offer assistance with welfare issues right through the student journey.

Australia does have oversight of education agents via the provider. Under section 4 of the national code, providers must monitor and cease dealing with education agents if there are any issues. In reality, this is a big area of contention, as one provider stopping work with an agent does not stop agents working with other education providers.

One solution that we discussed yesterday, and before, was New Zealand now reports visa grant rates via public list in markets such as India, Philippines and Vietnam. This is a public list of visa grant rates with no commentary about the agents; it's just a pure figure around how many visas granted and their success rates. This has worked very well with those markets for providers and students and has had a self-regulatory effect on the market taking out some of the low-performing agents.

Australia now has a rich source of data on all visa applications that involve an agent, because they must state the name of the agent on the visa application. With some more work on the data, it would be possible for Australia to also replicate the New Zealand model. ISEAA believes that if there's more data brought into the market, the transparency could lead to more self-regulation in the market. Top agents want to protect their reputation and use the data for promotion. Low-level agents will find it harder unless they lift their game. While I see it does not endorse regulation, it does promote the idea of agents being registered and identified. This is merely an extension of the current system for education agents being registered by the education provider now. It's a regulation that all education providers must publish a list of education and migration agents that hold a current agreement with the provider.

Education New Zealand also recently looked at and rejected the idea of regulation of education agents as being impractical. We heard this at our symposium on Monday. Things do go wrong, however, and education agents have been involved in fraud and misdirecting students. It is vital that there are mechanisms for complaints against education agents, and a more effective complaint mechanism against providers as well.

ISEAA is in contact with the Overseas Student Ombudsman's office to get advice on setting up a complaint and grievance procedure for members, and ISEAA can assist authorities in monitoring such things as social media sites for different groups on any issues that arise and concern education bad practices.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for that. I appreciate that you've gone to some effort to come up with some recommendations to improve things. One of the things that the committee has found—and I'm speaking on behalf of myself and not my colleagues—is that it sounds like any time a potential student speaks to an education agent that the conversation goes, 'Does that mean I end up staying in Australia?' and they are given immigration advice. What are your thoughts on that?

Mr Parsonson : Five out of six students go home, and that's a registered fact. Some students do come with a hope for residency, and that's not an unreasonable thing. There are legal ways for people to come and study in Australia and find work visas and pathways.

CHAIR: But an education agent can't give advice on—

Mr Parsonson : No, they cannot.

CHAIR: If someone goes to an education agent and it gets to that, do they say, 'Hang on. I can't discuss this any further'? Is that what happens?

Mr Parsonson : No, of course not. Overseas there's a lot of unlawful migration advice, if you like, around that area. The fact is that it's a very connected world. Information goes out from students on their story: 'I did this course and I did that, and I've been able to achieve residency.' That can drive behaviours for students. People will ask advice of friends, family and then, of course, education agents. I'm sure Regina and Michal would both have experience in this as well. My primary purpose for these students is really to come and do education. There'll be some that will always have hope that they can stay on.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: Five in six students go home?

Mr Par s onson : Yes, five out of six.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: You have figures to that effect?

Mr Par s onson : Yes. I don't have them with me here, but I can certainly send them to you.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: I wouldn't mind the total number of international students who come to Australia in a given year, the number that actually apply for permanent residency and those that go home.

Mr Par s onson : I'm sure home affairs can help.

CHAIR: I'm not sure if it was Four Corners, but it was one of those investigative shows. They were looking at a number of Indian students who'd paid good cash—lots of money—and they all got ripped off. To me, obviously, when that spreads around that's not a good message for Australia. What's your recommendation to fix that up? They're obviously dodgy people; whether they're immigration agents or frauds, I'm not sure. People are being ripped off and it's happening all around the world. One suggestion was that the Australian government have a website which lists all of the approved providers. Is that something you would support?

Mr Par s onson : We already have a lot of regulation in this country around becoming an international education provider. We have probably one of the most rigorous processes in the world. We don't have any lack of regulation in this area. There are providers that are also doing the wrong thing, and we would like ASQA and others to come down on those providers, because you get rid of some of these providers—again, taking the New Zealand case, closing down some providers has stemmed supply and then the numbers of those students who are vulnerable is also much less.

CHAIR: In your own evidence, talking about overseas, you used the words 'out of reach'.

Mr Par s onson : Information is the key. Unfortunately, the flow of information comes from a variety of sources. The government, of course, has a website and home affairs has a website. Everyone is pushing the idea that you don't come here with the idea that you're guaranteed—

CHAIR: It's like my local council. If I want to go and get work done on a more technical issue, the council has a list of people you can contact. Is that something in place at the moment with the education agents on the Australian government website or not?

Mr Par s onson : No.

CHAIR: Is that something you'd support?

Mr Par s onson : Certainly. We are supporting registration of education agents. It's already happening. Let's take it back a step. At the moment, from January this year, every provider has to register their education agent or migration agent on PRISMS, which is the system for registering confirmation letters to get a visa. That information is already there.

CHAIR: Is that public?

Mr Par s onson : No, it's not.

CHAIR: That's what I'm saying. If someone's in India, they wouldn't know. You could have the same scam I saw using a different name, potentially, and have person after person going down that path. But if there was an Australian government approved website, they could say, 'Hang on.'

Mr Par s onson : We don't want to, of course, then go and say that these are good—

CHAIR: No, it's just a list.

Mr Par s onson : Just say that this is a list. What we want to do is triangulate the information.

CHAIR: Before, you said you want to have the New Zealand model, which shows successful visa applications. Surely that would be saying whether it's a good agent or a bad agent?

Mr Par s onson : That's a very good indicator of an agent and how they run their office.

Mr NEUMANN: Are there any recommended fees or that information in the New Zealand situation: this is the sort of commission you're likely to pay if you avail yourself of the use of that agent?

Mr Par s onson : There are two sides. There are the service fees that some people charge to students directly to take on their services and then there are the commissions that they're paid by the universities, schools and colleges.

Mr NEUMANN: Is that information available? I'm not saying you have to be absolutely prescriptive. You see lawyers advertise 'no win, no fee', or 'this is how much you're likely to charge if you're going to do a conveyance'. We see that all the time. You go to Myers or David Jones and they say they'll charge you this if you buy that shirt or that pair of jeans. Is there any evidence out there so that the public has any information? Does the New Zealand model provide that?

Mr Par s onson : No. The New Zealand model is purely a list of the names of the agencies, their visa success rate and how many visas they process.

Mr NEUMANN: But no details about the likely cost?

Mr Par s onson : No details of the costs or anything like that. I think New Zealand deliberately have no commentary around that list. The numbers speak for themselves. The Education New Zealand representative that was here said that that was a very effective method. It had the effect of taking out a number of agents quite quickly from the market

Ms VAMVAKINOU: How did it do that?

Mr Par s onson : Purely because it's on a public site.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: I'm trying to understand this. It takes them out because it's public—meaning what? If you're dodgy you're on it?

Mr Par s onson : You're exposed. There's transparency.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: What constitutes dodgy in your world?

Mr Par s onson : In our world, misdirected advice, making promises that you can't keep and also taking, perhaps, fees from a student and not delivering a visa.

Mr NEUMANN: How does it do that? How does it say that a person's dodgy? For example, if I were to say you're a dodgy agent, I'd be defaming you quite clearly.

Mr Par s onson : They don't say that.

Mr NEUMANN: What do they say?

Mr Par s onson : The list shows the name of the agent and their percentage success rate of getting a visa, which is, of course, a very important piece.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: But you can be successful and dodgy anyway. It doesn't mean to say that you're very successful in getting things done if there's no follow-up as to how you did it. I think Shane's question is right. You're publicly listed, and we're to assume that because you've managed to be publicly listed that you're okay, because you've had all of these successes. How do you determine who the dodgy ones are? How do you find them? How do you let people know that they might be dealing with a dodgy education agent? If you're doing it, how do you do it? That's what we're looking to do.

Mr Par s onson : This is a government initiative. The New Zealand government publishes the list. The fact for students is that when they're approaching to study abroad they want to get the visa in order to come to the country to study. The Department of Home Affairs has a very rigorous approach to checking visas, as does the New Zealand government. When you look at those processes now with genuine temporary entrant recommendations and others, it's quite difficult to get an Australian visa. To try and game the system or get through on a consistent basis—I don't think it's possible anymore. Maybe Michal can add to that in a second. The success rate of an agent to me, from a provider's point of view or from a student's point of view, is a very key indicator of how good that office is.

CHAIR: Can I follow up on what they're saying? There could be a provider with an 87 per cent strike rate and they look really good, but they also may have a number they're not actually submitting, so it never hits the system. How do you know? The dodgy ones obviously aren't going to put the forms in.

Mr NEUMANN: To pick up what Jason's saying, 'I've got 25 years experience in the industry, I've had experience in these areas, I'm an accredited specialist in this'—the sort of information that you see all the time when someone is advertising their services for as a lawyer, for a start. How do we know? That's the point. This is not academic; we get this all the time. As federal politicians, the amount of complaints we get concerning your industry is enormous. We really genuinely want to know. It's completely bipartisan. How can people actually know?

Ms VAMVAKINOU: What system, if any, do you, the representative body, have in place that identifies people or can be—there's a symbiotic relationship between dodgy education agents and providers. They've got to work together in order for some of these rorts to take place, from what we can see.

Mr Par s onson : Certainly.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: What qualifications do education agents need to have? None. You can just sign up and be an education agent.

Mr Par s onson : Correct.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: You can be a provider and have your relative be the education agent. There's nothing wrong with people coming to Australia to study and then wanting to stay here. I'm a great supporter of that. That's why I asked for that statistic, five out of six, because I think that's too high. My experience is that it would be a lot more. It's a pathway to permanent residency; nothing illegal. Like everything else, people get duped into coming here. They pay and then they find that they actually can't stay here, because they haven't been given the right advice, haven't been given the right course or things like that. Strange things are happening that are great for the providers, because they're getting students and they're making a lot of money. But it's the students that get to the end of the line and, at some point, are told: 'Sorry. Unless you keep doing cert III in English, you can't stay here. You'll have to go.' That's the issue. How do you assess what's going on in your industry and what measures do you have in place to weed out what is clearly a process of relationships that are under your—the fact that you're publicly listed doesn't make me feel confident—

Mr Sestak : It's not service ready yet.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: I'm just giving you a picture of what we're trying to work on.

Ms DaSilva : I completely understand. First of all, sorry about my English; English is not my first language.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: No worries.

Ms DaSilva : I've worked for 16 years in this industry and I listen to my students. We classify dodgy providers based on what the students say to us and what we see on social media—all these channels that we use—and then we collect all this information. Because I've been in the industry for many years, I call people and I try to get as much information as I can from all the institutions. Depending on what they say, I won't use the service of that provider or that migration agent, because I know there's something wrong behind them. If there are so many people talking about these particular people—

Ms VAMVAKINOU: I've heard this before from a case that we've been dealing with—it's the social media. Is that the most efficient way you have of picking up disturbances in the industry?

Ms DaSilva : At the moment it's the only channel we have to get information from students. We can do other, improved—

Ms VAMVAKINOU: What other things can you do?

Ms DaSilva : Maybe we can create a channel where the student can inform. The other thing, too, is that students don't want to put their face to the complaint, because they're very scared of the agents; they think, 'If I say something else, I will lose my visa.' So maybe something anonymous where people can tell us—

CHAIR: An anonymous complaints line?

Ms DaSilva : Or we could sit together—that's why we want to work with other associations.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: So, if you don't have any qualifications, you can be an agent and you can do all of that. We're now discussing making some system available to international students who come here to study. The fact that they want to stay here is not a crime. I've met lots of them and I'd love for them to stay here. I come from that perspective. But I don't think an anonymous hotline is the best solution for resolving a problem that is a real issue. If the agents were more regulated, do you think that would be one way, rather than just relying on an anonymous hotline? Because that could go nowhere too. How do we toughen this up?

Ms DaSilva : The anonymous hotline was just one idea to get as much information as we can.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: Sure, that's to gather information.

Ms DaSilva : But I don't think being regulated would work. I think being registered would mean we would know who is doing what—names and numbers. Then you guys or another association or government body would have this information and you could give us some indication about what's going wrong with a particular provider or a particular migration agent, because they would be registered. Working together could give us an indication of how we could manage it. But it's all about information; I think it's all about data and being clear about what's going on.

CHAIR: When this inquiry started, I think one of the terms was on education, but it wasn't supposed to focus on that at all.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: But we've been overwhelmed by it.

CHAIR: All paths keep leading to Rome, and so eventually we say: we have to do something about this. We know education is a big export for Australia.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: And we support it.

CHAIR: But we have a concern about Australia's reputation. If people are getting fleeced overseas, we need to do something about that. The other thing is that you made mention of OMARA, and we note your comment:

The additional cost of OMARA registered staff in Education Agencies would make the cost of business untenable …

Why would education agents require OMARA registered staff? OMARA is the umbrella; they're not to be in the office.

Mr Parsonson : The cost of becoming a migration agent is quite steep. What we're saying is that it's not actually necessary to have every education agent become a registered migration agent.

CHAIR: But potentially—and this is what the deputy chair said before, and this is one of the concerns we have with migration agents—they actually use the local community leaders, not an agent. They shouldn't be doing it. It's totally illegal. They start giving advice. They start giving the wrong advice. If you look at education, I could go tomorrow and put myself up as an education agent. Is that correct?

Mr Parsonson : Yes.

CHAIR: To me, you'd need to have something in place to protect the good name of other education agents. That's what we found with the immigration agents. They were very big on: 'We want more regulations. We want bang, bang, bang, because we know, if we do that, it's going to cut out all the cowboys and make our industry tighter and cleaner.' They're great consumers. As I said, that's the dodgy ones.

Mr Sestak : I may step in. I guess we are at that tipping point at the moment. We look at it historically. The majority of education agents are trying to do the right thing.

CHAIR: For sure.

Mr Sestak : However, there's no training for education agents about the ESOS Act. There's no training for education agents about student visa regulations. You mention students from India being misled. A lot has to do with the institution itself, because that institution appoints that particular agent.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: That's why I said it's a symbiotic relationship between the agent and provider.

Mr Sestak : Exactly. We do understand that asking education agents to become registered migration agents might have been the ideal situation, but it's a little bit unnecessary because the majority of education agents—90 per cent, in fact—do not have a migration licence and they don't plan ever to work with refugee tribunals.

CHAIR: I understand.

Mr Sestak : They don't plan to apply for 482-class visas, partner visas. We are trying to work with the legal experts about the ESOS Act and run courses for the education agents about components of the ESOS Act which relate to the education agents. We also plan to put together a program, which would be around a student visa regulation, specifically only for the education agents. I know that would require a change of legislation, because, at the moment, without being a member of OMARA you cannot legally provide any immigration advice or assistance but I think it's a bit of an issue.

We had a conference in Brisbane on Monday and I was one of the speakers about migration GTE component, which is extremely important. The number of cases I received yesterday from the attending agents was overwhelming. They genuinely want to know what they're doing wrong, how they can improve, how we, as an associate, can help them out and how we can train them. They didn't understand the basic principles of lodging a visa application. My question is: whose fault is it really? What did we do wrong in the past so that we got to this point?

Ms VAMVAKINOU: So what do agents do? Can you tell me what an education agent actually does?

Mr Sestak : The majority of the agent's work is to talk to a client, ask him or her about their academic and professional background and ask whether the study he or she intends to undertake in Australia is suitable for his or her future career. Whether it's Brazil, whether it's Germany or whether it's India, every country and nation has its own requirements. That's the majority of their work, prior to coming to Australia.

The visa component is a necessity. Obviously, students offshore must apply for student visas, as we know. Since 1 July 2016, with the introduction of subclass 500, it became very complex.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: An education agent sounds like a career counsellor working for an institution to bring in students.

Mr Sestak : Pretty much.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: So they're a sales person, effectively. They are, aren't they? They're selling a course at a university.

Mr Sestak : I would say yes, that's not far from the truth. Yes.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: I think we should be honest.

Mr Sestak : Yes.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: Then the next step—

Mr Sestak : The next step, once you complete the recruitment and you find the client, you have to apply for the visa.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: Does 'who' mean the client or the agent?

CHAIR: The student.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: The student.

Mr Sestak : In my organisation it's everything under OMARA members.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: Of course.

Mr Sestak : I've got three in my company. But I'm one of the 10 percent, unfortunately. According to the Department of Education and Training, only 10 per cent of education agents registered with the department do also hold a migration license.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: That's interesting to look at.

Mr Sestak : That's a fact.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: Maybe that's one way of controlling the system.

Mr Sestak : We can, to some degree. A lot of migration agents do not specialise in the student visa at all.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: No, they don't.

Mr Sestak : We were running the statistics: if I take all the student visa applications for a year and I distribute them across all registered migration agents, they would not be able to cope with the workload. In the short term, in my view, we need to find a solution that would protect the clients, as the No. 1 priority. You mentioned that a student will go to see an education agent asking for migration options. They don't know it. It comes from the institutions. You've got schools offering migration programs and they don't, themselves, have migration agents.

CHAIR: The universities?

Mr Sestak : Universities, private providers—

Ms VAMVAKINOU: There's one component missing in this discussion that we're having, and that is the providers. We've never had a look at how providers and low-level providers are operating here. Really, it can't be done without them.

Mr Parsonson : That's correct.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: They may even be the instigators of it.

Mr Parsonson : They are a very important piece of the puzzle. It is not just low-level providers. Universities also advertise the fact that, in the past, for example, accountancy was on the skilled occupation list and that is why we have many thousands and thousands of students doing accountancy. The offshore recruitment officers for the universities, employed by the universities, will also give that information. That is one of the drivers for Australia. It's one of the drivers for Canada. It's a driver for New Zealand also. Migration, although we have done the split in terms of the genuine temporary entry, remains one of the drivers.

The Department of Home Affairs recognises this still, and they also recognise that people can have those hopes, and there's nothing wrong with that. What they want—and they stated this on Monday—is to have a career plan for a student so that, should they go back to their country, they've got something very useful and a skill that they can use in their own country or elsewhere. I think most education agents work along those lines as well.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: I think that was very enlightening in the sense that it all leads back to providers and skill shortages and lists and all sorts of things and, inevitably, it goes back to migration. The fact is, you've got this group of people who are out there in the field, taking advantage of what is a sensible, potentially legitimate process of education and migration in this country. It's not illegitimate; it's very legitimate, but it's being abused. The stuff that's been given to the committee in Sydney by a particular operator is just unbelievable. If that's an indication of what goes on at a lower level, clearly something has to be done to try and protect international students, in particular, because they're the ones that get ripped off. That's all we're trying to do—and therefore your industry.

CHAIR: It's like protecting the reputation. Obviously you've started thinking about some potential recommendations and you can put them on notice and come back to us. I can say, from what you've heard of the committee, we are concerned. I like the suggestion about extra training but there has to be, at the very least, a website or list of all the names and the players. When it comes to MARA, I still think it needs to go down that path to do two things: protect your reputation and protect innocent people from being ripped off. That's why we found that the immigration agents were right behind the inquiry, because you get rid of all the bad guys.

Ms DaSilva : I work with migration and I don't have a migration agent in my office. It's good to work with a good migration agent that can provide you with accurate information; it is essential, but we don't need to become a migration agent.

CHAIR: No, we're not suggesting that at all. We're not saying, 'Go down the same path.' But we want to make sure that if you're going to separate—obviously keep them separated. And you mentioned about universities, that there could be something that the education minister provides to—

Mr Sestak : But I guess we also may consider the fact—and Robert is probably the person to talk about it—that current education providers are under quite a lot of scrutiny from ASQA—

CHAIR: For sure.

Mr Sestak : And I have heard from several providers that, firstly, they spend a lot of time policing unregistered agents. Is that a duty of an education provider, to police a salesman? We can argue that the answer is yes. But the more time and resources that they have to spend on compliance and policing the less there is to actually pass onto the education programs. Secondly, education providers are penalised with negative points once a student visa application is refused. And I've heard from a number of providers that we as education providers have no training in the migration regulations. We don't understand the GT system. We cannot check whether that statement that came from the bank in China is or is not genuine. And because we haven't got these powers, knowledge, skills and expertise, we trust education agents, and we get burned.

CHAIR: Yes.

Mr Sestak : So, I think it's a bit of a—

CHAIR: Perhaps you could take it on notice, and we'll just close up there. Perhaps over the next four weeks you could consult your members and say that it's best to put recommendations to suggest to the committee some ideas, and we'll go from there. Thank you for your attendance here today. If the committee has any further questions they will be put to you in writing. You'll be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have the opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors.

Resolved that these proceedings be published.

Committee adjourned at 10 : 41