The Australian government issued its long-awaited Migration Strategy on 11 December 2023 and announced “the biggest reforms to migration in a generation.” Furthermore, on 7 February 2024, the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator (NVETR) legislative amendments were introduced into Parliament. The government is making an ongoing effort to clean up the vocational education and training industry, reduce the integrity risks posed by RTOs that are not genuine or unscrupulous, and attempt to curb the number of students who apply for programs. It is anticipated that additional legislation and changes will go into effect in the month of March.
As expected, the reforms will have a profound impact on the AUS$30 billion-per-year international education sector – and will certainly affect the flow of foreign students into the country.
Although the government has not yet mandated a cap on the number of international students, recent events make it abundantly clear that this is occurring. These events include high rates of visa refusal, cancellations of certificates of enrollment from leading Australian universities, and general turmoil in the industry.
The mission of the government to rebuild Australia’s migration system appears to be based on the complete and total reorganization of the industry. Have they not learned from the fact that the previous Labour administrations made the same mistakes and left the entire industry in shambles?
The government’s strategy is to attract “people who are best placed to help build the skills base of Australia’s workforce, boost exports and raise living standards.” Yet the current visa refusal rates tell a different story: as The Sydney Morning Herald reported, “Australia’s net migration will be halved within two years in a dramatic move to slash the annual intake from a record high of 510,000 by imposing tougher tests on overseas students and turning away workers with low skills.” “This Strategy is about building back integrity into the system, with Treasury forecasts showing that migration is expected to decline substantially over the next financial year,” added Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil.
Improving integrity of international education a priority
Supporting many of these measures, the government introduced a “student visa integrity unit,”, part of the Department of Home Affairs’ which will receive initial funding of AUS$19 million, and additional AUS$38 million of funding to ASQA to “strengtheing the integrity unit” as announced by the Minister O’Connor in his speech at the National Press Club in October 2023.
In his latest announcement on 7 February 2024, the Minister O’Connor introduced The National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Strengthening Quality and Integrity in Vocational Education and Training No. 1) Bill 2024, to tackle unscrupulous and non-genuine providers and improve the integrity of the nation’s vocational education and training (VET) sector.
The key amendments in the Bill will:
- Cause an RTO’s registration to automatically lapse where the RTO has not delivered training and/or assessment for 12 months. This addresses integrity risks of dormant/”shell” RTOs failing to show genuine commitment to VET;
- Prevent RTOs from expanding their course offering if they have been operating for less than 2 years. This will allow ASQA to scrutinise new RTOs to ensure they demonstrate capability and genuine commitment to VET over a reasonable period – which is however unclear as how this will be managed. For example, if the RTO has an opportunity to expand their operation, they will prevented from doing so, and effectively they can loose their registration as they could not operate for 12 months. Additionally, if there is a change of the scope, which is an ongoing issue on its own, and the new courses are not equivalent, the RTO will be at mercy of ASQA, and if they do not get the scope registered within 12 months (which is possible), their registration will lapse.
- Provide ASQA with greater discretion in prioritising, considering and deciding RTO applications. This will allow ASQA to quickly progress applications for reputable organisations, while scrutinising high risk ones.
- Empower the Minister (with the agreement of state and territory Skills Ministers) to determine that ASQA need not, or must not, accept or process new RTO applications (or those for one or more classes of RTO). This will enable ASQA to address trends in applications by non-genuine providers, or manage unsustainable influxes into the VET sector and address associated risks; – It is not clear how this will be determined and used, if, by the Minister.
- Expand offence and civil penalty provisions to cover a broader range of false or misleading representations by RTOs about their operations. This will allow ASQA to target egregious RTO conduct exploiting and luring students with false descriptions of training, facilities and false testimonials;
- Increase five-fold maximum penalties for a breach of relevant offences or civil penalties under the Act. Tougher penalties will deter RTOs that currently see penalties as a risk worth taking or a ‘cost of doing business’.
- Other minor amendments streamline regulatory processes and clarify review processes for RTOs.
The significant changes that will result from the strategies that have been listed above will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the vocational education and training (VET) sector, as well as, as the government intends, the international education industry as a whole. As a consequence of this, it is anticipated that the number of students will significantly decrease, and the education provided by private providers will also decrease.
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