Controversial legislation to reduce international student numbers has been referred to a Parliamentary committee, which is now soliciting public feedback to shape new laws designed to rein in what critics call a surge of students exploited by “dodgy” operators.

Efforts to contain growing student numbers – more than 650,000 overseas students are currently studying here and the numbers are headed towards a million without intervention – have been blamed for everything from causing the housing crisis to threatening the quality of Australian education.

Coming days after a raft of Budget measures the government says are designed to make Australia’s education system “better and fairer”, the proposed new legislation aims to tighten controls in an Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) sector that is purportedly teeming with “dodgy” education providers and agents.

Those industry players are, the government has argued, colluding to harvest tuition fees from students that are being exploited, underpaid, and given inadequate educations.

Particularly controversial are provisions giving the federal Minister for Education – currently Jason Clare – discretion to adjust the maximum number of overseas students, putatively to rein in what he described as “the shonks seeking to take advantage of them.”

The regulations in the newly introduced bill – known as the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Quality and Integrity) Bill 2024 – proposes a range of regulatory changes that the government argues would improve the quality of education in the sector by weeding out exploitative education providers, agents, and other players in the ESOS sector.

Specific changes up for consideration include requiring ESOS agencies to consider whether cross-ownership strategies are allowing education providers and agents to “exploit students for profit” by steering them into dodgy for-profit educational programs; expand access to education agent performance data; and improve transparency of fees paid by education providers to education agents that facilitate overseas students’ admission to Australian courses.

The legislation would also pause assessment of applications from new international education providers for up to 12 months; force education providers to deliver courses to domestic students for 24 months before they are made available to international students; automatically cancel the registration of “unscrupulous actors” who have not delivered training to overseas students for 12 months; and allow for suspension of the enrolment of new overseas students signed up for courses from providers who are under “serious regulatory investigation.”

“Because there is no place for dodgy operators who undermine the strong reputation of the sector, Minister for Skills and Training Brendan O’Connor added, “we are making it tougher for bottom-feeders to take advantage of international students for a quick buck.”

Rebalancing a sector in crisis

Just how the legislation looks in its final form will depend on how it is changed in response to public submissions, which can be lodged through 13 June in advance of a 15 August report from the Senate Standing Committees on Education and Employment – which is considering the proposed legislation in the wake of an explosion of concern from universities that the reform-era measures will threaten funding that is crucial to the institutions’ survival.

Even mooted provisions designed to ease perceived housing pressures – such as provisions to boost the cap at institutions that invest in building student housing – have been slammed as “chaotic” and “populist”, particularly in the wake of a recent report that found overseas students are not to blame for the housing crisis.

And while the government has argued that ministerial caps will give the government more finely-focused levers to prioritise overseas students studying subjects to gain skills that are in shortage in Australia, industry analysts worry the measures are a bridge too far.

The introduction of caps “will send all the wrong messages, yet again, or Australia’s reliability as a welcoming study destination country,” International Education Association of Australia CEO Phil Honeywood warned, arguing that recent changes to student financial capability requirements, visa processing slowdowns and backlogs would leave students and education agents feeling “incredibly let down.”

“There is a real danger of Government overreach in this new policy approach,” Honeywood warned.

Education policy commentator Professor Andrew Norton, who works in Practice of Higher Education Policy at ANU’s Centre for Social Research and Methods, believes most of the government’s recent policy changes “are justifiable” but sees the caps as “a bad move” that will likely push real enrolment numbers far lower than they should be.

“It is far from obvious that course level enrolments should be a consideration for international student policy,” Norton said, noting that “the current practice and policy is that most international students go home” after completing their studies.

“Because numbers will be allocated between universities and courses according to a politician or bureaucrat’s view of where students should enrol, rather than where students want to enrol, actual enrolments are likely to be well below the capped level.”

“People who will spend most of their working lives in non-Australian labour markets should be free to take courses that reflect their own interests and career plans.”