"The system here in Victoria for delivering quality training to both domestic students and international students is working very, very well", Jacinta Allan, Victorian skills and workplace participation minister told ABC Stateline on July 24 in response to criticisms of Australia's international education market.
Federal education minister Julia Gillard also refused to accept that the international education industry was riddled with corruption and predatory operators ripping off students and staff alike.
"I don't accept ... this is a broad brush across all of the international education industry. It's not", she told ABC radio's The World Today on July 29.
Reality tells otherwise. A July 27 ABC TV Four Corners program exposed the unscrupulous business operators who thrive in the industry, preying on foreign students to deliver second-rate education for top dollars and doing "cash for certificates" deals.
The program followed protests by international students against their financial exploitation and racial abuse, and countless media reports warning of a government-sanctioned rort in the industry.
Four Corners revealed fraudulent behaviour by migration and education agents, which led to a police raid of a Sydney migration agent involved in a scam to exploit foreign students on July 27. Of most concern, the program presented evidence suggesting government bodies refuse to deal with complaints of unethical education providers and student exploitation.
Some facts might explain the federal and state governments' reluctance to regulate the sector.
The international student market is big business in Australia: it is the third-largest export-earner, behind coal and iron. It brings in $15.5 billion in 2008. Selling education to foreign students has become Victoria's number one export industry.
An Access Economics study claimed that from 2006 to 2008 international student enrolments grew by 43.1%, registering a record half million enrolments last year. In 2006 and 2007, the private sector of the industry received a massive 92.6% increase in enrolments.
This growth is related to the government's skilled migration programs that link permanent residency opportunities with the completion of particular qualifications in Australia. In 2005, the program was expanded to include cheaper vocational training in hairdressing, cooking and motor mechanics.
Many students in these courses already hold qualifications from their home country. But they hope that the diploma courses will help them gain permanent residency.
Gillard has tried to put a spin on the skilled migration programs being linked to permanent residency. "Coming here as an international student to study is about being a student in this country. Applying to be a permanent migrant to this country is about our immigration system and people should not confuse the two. They are separate processes", she said, according to the July 30 Age.
The expansion of the program gave the private sector a great business opportunity: suddenly thousands of colleges sprung up everywhere. They were under-resourced and under-regulated, but happy to charge exorbitant fees.
Abdul Paracha had completed one year of his two-year welfare diploma course at Melbourne International College (MIC) when it closed its doors to 330 students on July 17. Less than two weeks later, Sydney's Sterling College closed, leaving 500 students and 35 staff stranded.
MIC had gone into voluntary administration for the second time in 12 months, and finally had its education license withdrawn by the Victorian Registration and Qualification Authority (VRQA). Paracha had already paid $11,000 off the $18,000 diploma.
"I even paid another $1500 one week before the college closed", he told Green Left Weekly. He felt completely taken advantage of. "Colleges don't close overnight. They must have known a while ago that there were financial problems, but had no interest in telling us what's going on."
Students are guaranteed the continuation of their studies at other private colleges under the Tuition Assurance Scheme. This scheme is managed by the Australian Council for Private Education and Training (ACPET) and overseen by the federal education department.
The July 31 Sydney Morning Herald said the fund guaranteeing the scheme was uninsured. If the fund became overdrawn the government would have to take responsibility for claims or students would not be absorbed by other colleges anymore, the article said.
Two weeks after MIC closed, Paracha is still waiting to hear where he will complete his diploma. He believes he should be able to transfer to a public education institution or have his money refunded, but both options are denied to students. "How can we trust other private colleges after what has happened to us?", he asked. Paracha is convinced the problem lies with the private sector.
Staff who worked at MIC are also fighting for entitlements. While some staff entitlements are covered by a government scheme, workers at the college who were not Australian residents are not covered. Staff are also owed $120,000 in superannuation.
And here is where things get murky. The company's sole director is 22-year-old Melbourne woman Yarlini Nadarajamoorthy. The Victorian Independent Education Union, which has been assisting staff, said Nadarajamoorthy's father is the real owner and that he should be pursued for his assets
Sandra Niceva, who worked at MIC, told GLW that problems were many, but she doesn't think they are unique to MIC. "There were not enough resources available to us. Classes became very large and difficult to teach and we had put up with a constant change in campus and education managers."
Niceva said MIC was audited by VRQA in mid-April 2009, but workers were in the dark about the outcome. She thought it was unacceptable that audit outcomes were not available to the public and that government departments were not more accountable.
VRQA is in the process of conducting "rapid audits" on 17 colleges operating in Victoria, but has not released the information. That's not good enough for Niceva, who said people have a right to know the names of these colleges so students and workers could make an informed choice about studying or working there.
It should ring alarm bells that the same government organisation that hands out education licenses without thought and under-regulates the industry is conducting the investigation into potential education breaches and the abuse of students.
Niceva and Paracha said they wanted the federal government to take more action against private operators. "These operators are playing with our money and lives", Paracha said. "They have to treat us with respect and provide an education level that is of Australian standard, that's what we are paying for."
Niceva said: "The government should impose stricter penalties for the owners of private training institutions if they don't adhere to the rules and regulations. The appointed monitoring bodies should do what they are supposed to do in a timely manner and not only become involved when something goes wrong."
International students are suffering because of restrictive immigration policies: they jump through hoops, spend thousands of dollars on under-regulated, under-resourced vocational courses just to stand a better chance of being allowed to live here. If the government didn't link residency with educational outcomes, they could choose the courses that they actually wanted to study.
Similarly, if the two weren't linked, the dodgy, corrupt industry that is the enormous private international education sector may not have sprung up in the first place. All private industry — regardless of the sector — is first and foremost about making money. Workers, and in this case also international students, will always pay the price for the industry's pursuit of profits.
Education is a human right, and shouldn't be linked to profit motives or residency opportunities. In the meantime, while such an industry — conducive to corruption and exploitation — exists, it should be the subject of rigorous government regulation with heavy penalties for non-compliance, conducted in the interest of international students and workers in the industry.