Australian state to pay student recruitment agents’ commissions

WA says legal contracts and payment through institutions will avert unintended consequences

September 20, 2022
Man taking money
Source: iStock

An Australian government has taken the unusual step of paying commissions to student recruitment agents as it tries to rebuild an international education industry ravaged by unfavourable policy settings and lingering coronavirus lockdowns.

Western Australia (WA) has announced details of the A$10 million (£5.9 million) “incentive scheme” it foreshadowed in May to “increase awareness of WA’s international education sector through the agent network”.

The scheme offers agents A$1,000 for every confirmed international enrolment at any of the five WA-based universities, and pays them A$500 apiece for foreign school, vocational training or English college enrolments.

The “additional top-up commission” applies to enrolments effected between September this year and June 2023, until the A$10 million kitty is exhausted. It complements payments arranged directly between agents and education providers.

The government has also released more details about a A$6.8 million bursary and accommodation subsidy scheme announced in May. It will finance A$1,500 payments to offset the accommodation costs of up to 2,500 full-time students in the latter half of 2022, and A$1,500 discounts on the tuition fees of up to 2,000 English language students.

International education minister David Templeman said WA was “the best place in the world” to live and study. “It is vitally important that [our] government incentivises international student agents, as well as students, to encourage them to consider and ultimately make the right choice to study in our state,” he said.

The details have emerged amid a surge in fraudulent visa applications to study in Australia, where foreign students currently enjoy unlimited work rights.

In early September, the Department of Home Affairs blamed a proliferation of “false and misleading information” for its July rejection of more than 60 per cent of vocational training visa applications from India, and more than 90 per cent from Nepal.

The department said applicants must be “carefully vetted”, particularly if they came from “rapidly expanding markets” like Nepal. “Providers should build trust with reliable agents and maintain their own vetting mechanisms,” it warned.

Consultant and former regulator Claire Field said that under these circumstances, the WA government was taking a “significant risk” in offering “blanket incentives” to education agents.

“Funding providers to help them diversify their student cohorts would be a more sensible measure and would allow for government-supported initiatives which are more targeted and more clearly focussed on quality,” she said.

A WA government spokeswoman said “a range of controls” would ensure that agents were only paid for referring “genuine” students. The payments would be made under a legal settlement requiring the education providers to have “contractual agreements in place with their education agents”.

The government will not pay agents directly, she added. Rather, the money will be farmed through educational institutions “to form part of their existing commission structures” and “ensure obligations are met from a contractual standpoint between agents, students and the provider”.

WA currently attracts about 6 per cent of the international students in Australia, despite hosting 11 per cent of the national population and 12 per cent of the universities. It lost ground to smaller jurisdictions like South Australia and Tasmania from 2017, when it withdrew from an immigration points scheme.

It further alienated foreign students by extending its coronavirus border closure for longer than any other state, finally reopening in March after a string of hastily imposed and confusing policy changes.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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