AUSTRALIA: Government acts to prevent collapse

The federal government is taking belated steps to prevent a collapse in Australia's multi-billion dollar education export industry with signs of a possible sharp fall in the lucrative Indian market.

Some universities and vocational colleges are already experiencing the impact of declining numbers of Indian students following a spate of widely reported attacks on them in the major cities. That bad news has been followed by further reports of shonky vocational colleges ripping off students and offering illegal access to permanent residency visas for high fees.

In Melbourne and Sydney, two vocational colleges have been shut down after audits found they were operating with inadequate facilities and unqualified teachers. Hundreds of mostly Indian students found themselves part-way through courses that could not be completed at the colleges although they are expected to be relocated to other institutions.

Two universities in Melbourne have reported signs of a drop in demand from Indian students while the nation's biggest recruitment agency, IDP Education Australia, has told of an 80% drop in appointments by students at its 14 offices in India.

The nation's biggest student recruitment agency, IDP Education Australia, has reported an 80% fall in appointments by students at its 14 offices across India.

IDP Chief Executive Tony Pollock told The Australian newspaper the plunge in "foot traffic" would not translate into an equivalent fall in enrolment applications unless the trend persisted during the next two months of key recruitment activity.

The federal and state governments sent a team of officials to India last month to try to allay government and media alarm at the attacks on students. Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans is currently in India also trying to repair Australia's battered image.

In a speech in New Delhi, Evans said there was no automatic link between studying in Australia and access to permanent residency: "The Australian government will adjust the programme to meet our national needs and not be driven by the education choices of overseas students," he said. "Those who seek to market access to a permanent visa in Australia rather than a quality education do a grave disservice to potential students."

But critics of the flood of Indian and Chinese students to Australia in the past two years say the sole reason many arrive is to gain permanent residency. The huge rise in the number of colleges offering vocational courses, and illegal means of gaining residency visas, is a direct result of the demand.

Changes to Australia's skilled migration programme which has cut out hairdressing and cooking as skills in demand seems certain to result in a decline in enrolments once students in India and China realise they will not be able to gain residency visas.

Education Minister Julia Gillard refused to be interviewed on an ABC Four Corners television programme last week which highlighted the extent of corruption within the vocational college sector. Gillard subsequently admitted that some institutions were providing "sub-standard" services to foreign students while defending the overall quality of the education offered by colleges and universities.

On another ABC programme, she said the vast majority of international students were satisfied with their education and the way they were received in Australia. She said the government had taken steps to improve auditing of rogue operators and was hosting a "round table" in Canberra next month where students could raised their concerns directly with her.