Australia is moving to mend damage done to its higher-education sector by tightening regulations that have enabled some low-quality vocational colleges to prey upon international students looking for an easy path to immigration.

A government-commissioned review released Tuesday urges more support for international students, coupled with stronger mechanisms to ensure that they are protected from unscrupulous operators. It also calls for tighter regulation of the international education industry in Australia, and states that unethical recruitment practices must be stopped.

Bruce Baird, a former member of Parliament and author of the report, said the education industry had been harmed by institutions that have cashed in on foreigners who used education as a pathway to immigration, known as permanent residency. The report focuses in large part on strengthening the Education Services for Overseas Students Act, passed in 2000 and designed to regulate the burgeoning international education industry.

"We have permanent-residency factories," Mr. Baird told reporters upon releasing the 108-page document, titled "Stronger, Simpler, Smarter ESOS: Supporting International Students."

The report suggests the creation of new legislation that makes it illegal to offer bogus courses and enacts strict, routine regulatory oversight of education providers to ensure that their businesses are legitimate. Fines would be imposed on those who break the rules.

Julia Gillard, Australia's education minister, said the report was a "foundation stone" for further work in international education.

A spokesman for Ms. Gillard told The Chronicle that the federal government would develop new regulations in consultation with state and territorial governments. While the federal government administers the ESOS Act, local governments also have a hand in oversight of higher-education institutions.

"This will take time, and there is no deadline, but we have a lot of support" from both political parties, the spokesman said.

A Mushrooming Industry

Foreign-student numbers in Australia increased from 228,000 in 2002 to around 490,000 in 2009, much of that driven by the rapid growth of vocational colleges.

Some students have complained that they were tricked into paying thousands of dollars in tuition only to find that their vocational college was a storefront operation. Tensions rose further among foreign students last year when a number of Indian students were attacked over a period of several months.

Reports of fraud led the government to investigate and close a handful of colleges, which left hundreds of students in limbo. Yet recent media reports indicate that the vocational—education sector continues to grow, with at least one hundred colleges opening in the last year.

Under the proposed changes, these colleges will be subject to increased scrutiny by government regulators.
The Baird report appears to put most of the onus on the service providers themselves to make sure integrity is restored to higher education, and does not offer much criticism of students who used colleges as vehicles for migration. The report recommends that education providers be required to supply students with more detailed description of the courses they offer, and the cost and conditions for applying.

It also calls for a strict ban on the poaching of students by one institute from another. Education agents, which are used frequently by Australian institutions to recruit from abroad, will be required to work more openly and to reveal their commission structures to students as well as regulators.