International students, including Pakistanis, are falling victim to false promises from foreign agents in Australia.
Foreign agents are paid huge bonuses by private providers to lure international students into substandard courses with assurances of full-time work and a path to permanent residency.
Foreign agents have been used by Australian universities for decades to drive enrolments and assist students offshore with application processes and accommodation.
But this world is an unregulated one, with some foreign agents accused of bribing international students with laptops, easy course models and false promises about what could happen after they graduate.
At a parliamentary inquiry into the international student sector, Phil Honeywood, the chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, claimed that Australia’s international education system had become a “Ponzi scheme”.
He said onshore and overseas agents were paid up to 50% commission by independent institutions to lure South Asian students into courses with poor credentials that didn’t suit their talents or skills.
Honeywood said: “These agents need to be regulated.
“It’s not hard to do but they’ve been getting away with it for two decades.”
One victim is Pakistani national Muhammad Ihsan.
He arrived in Australia in 2013 on a student visa to complete a Master’s in biotech and bioinformatics at a university in Melbourne.
He had graduated top of his course with a Bachelor’s in medical genetics.
Muhammad says the agents who enrolled him in his initial course in Australia had travelled to Pakistan.
He thought it would he would receive a world-class education, which would lead to a six-figure job.
However, Muhammad found that of the 90 students on the course, just two were Australian. The majority were Indian.
He says agents often enrol students in courses and then send them to different institutions in order to gain more commission.
In one instance, Muhammad was advised by one agent to enrol in what he calls an independent “scam college” in Tasmania where there was “no education [standards] whatsoever”.
He paid $20,000 in upfront fees but after paying the agent, he was unable to contact them with queries about the course.
Another course Muhammad took at an independent institute in Melbourne cost $56,000 for two semesters.
He says: “You can’t even label it as a course, it had no use.
“Teachers were teaching masters level courses and you can’t comprehend a single thing they’re saying.”
More than 100 people turned up for the first session. Muhammad believes they still passed with degrees, however, many of them stopped coming to class.
He added: “I was sitting there in an empty room. It’s all fake.”
In 2012, the government tried to reform the foreign agents sector with a public voluntary register, aimed at placing greater accountability on what agents the institutions were using.
But Honeywood says it has not worked. Instead, it has become a “race to the bottom” in an increasingly competitive, and lucrative, market.
He said that sometimes money was being “handed in an envelope under the table” to agents who directed students into courses.
In its submission to the Australian Universities Accord, Independent Higher Education Australia called for the mandatory registration of international agents.
In the public university sector, Honeywood says agents are offered a maximum of around 15%