Regulatory obligations in regards to international education agents

Regulation in the Australian higher education industry

Regulatory obligations in regards to international education agents

For the third article in the series, we highlight a provider's liability in regards to the agents that recruit students for them overseas, and how proactive regulation can lead to a stronger likelihood of students joining.

Although much focus on compliance in the Higher Education sector is around personal safety, academic integrity and financial integrity, the sector has real and important obligations around their digital presence, especially in regards to Education agents play a pivotal role in bridging the gap between educational institutions and prospective overseas students. Functioning as intermediaries, these agents assist students with everything from selecting the right institution and course to navigating the application and visa processes However, with this role comes significant responsibility, especially in terms of regulatory compliance.

In 2018, there were 6,878 active agencies and 19,413 agents involved in enrolments for overseas students at Australian education providers. In 2022, about 76% of international student enrolments came through these agents, up 15% from only 10 years ago.

When we did an analysis of a subsection of the educational agents the 15 universities in Australia share and found they rarely ever contained the required CRICOS or TEQSA code of the university they were advertising. Ensuring this is present is a responsibility of the university they are affiliated with and presents operating risk to the university as there can be serious consequences, that can be seen in article 1 of this series, that can limit their ability to operate.

Furthermore the lack of management of these key customer acquisition channels has led to Australia’s top universities receiving poor brand representation in this international marketplace.

The regulatory relationship between education providers and international agents

The regulatory framework governing Australian education providers and their international agents is predominantly underpinned by the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 (ESOS Act) and its associated legislative framework, collectively known as the ESOS framework. This framework is monitored by TEQSA (Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency), ensuring that the higher education providers comply with the set standards, particularly when it comes to the recruitment and management of overseas students through education agents.

According to Standard 4 of the National Code of Practice for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2018, registered providers are required to enter into formal agreements with education agents. These agreements must clearly outline the responsibilities of both parties, emphasising that the education provider is ultimately responsible for compliance with the ESOS Act and the National Code. This includes ensuring that the CRICOS code and TEQSA provider identification number are prominently displayed on the agents' websites.

The liability of education providers extends to the actions of their agents. If an education agent fails to comply with their responsibilities, including the proper representation of the provider's accreditation details like CRICOS and TEQSA numbers, the provider must take immediate corrective action. This swift response is not just a matter of regulatory compliance, but it also reflects the provider's commitment to ethical practices and quality assurance.

What we found 

In a continuation of our study in the second article in this series, on the Australian education sector's regulatory landscape, we looked at internal compliance to ensure the CRICOS code was present when advertising to international students. We took the same 15 Australian universities. 

To do this we took a subsection of the actively promoted international agents by the universities to make sure each university had at least 10 educational agents in this study. We found for all, the vast majority of the agents selected were advertising courses to international students without including the required CRICOS code.

In this sample group of 15, the average university has around 150 explicit advertisements to international students missing a CRICOS code, and just under 5000 pages or documents that could be seen to induce an international student to attend. 

Poor education agent management is making Australia less competitive on the world stage

After the deep dive into compliance, we asked the Haast tool to look at brand guidelines on the international agents website. Ignoring the human capital investment in fostering the relationship between the university and the agent, the financial cost to the university is significant, with recruitment agents taking between 11 and 17 percent of the total tuition fee.

The websites consistently have many inconsistencies with the universities current offerings with the pages referencing out of date course fees, discontinued programs and scholarship links even linking to other universities. These mistakes lead to disappointed students and lost leads.