Many students stuck overseas due to Australia's border closure have been warned their Certificates of Enrolment (CoE) might be cancelled if they don’t pay their fees in full by a given date. The Department of Education, Skills and Employment says they are protected by Australian law.
At a time when major Australian universities are stepping up their support to international students disadvantaged by the coronavirus, many students enrolled in private colleges are feeling “harassed” by the “warning letters” being issued to them.
Some of Australia’s vocational training institutions, especially private colleges and Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) have emailed their students currently stranded overseas to deposit their fees or else their Certificate of Enrolment (CoE) may be cancelled.
- International students have been stuck overseas due to COVID-19 travel restrictions
- Students have been warned their CoE might become invalid if they don't pay their fees in full
- Department of Education says international students are protected by Australian law
A cancelled COE means an international student cannot enter Australia.
This concern confounding many was raised before the Assistant Minister for Customs, Consumer Affairs and Multicultural Affairs Jason Wood in a video conference organised by International Student Support on July 23.
The Australia India Sports Education and Culture Society (AISECS), a participating student-help organisation which brought this to Mr Wood’s attention, has heard from several students currently stranded in India about such letters.
Gurnam Singh, the founder of AISECS, says that many students who approached him for help to liaise with their colleges, feel “stressed and harassed” during the financially-challenging times of COVID-19.
He says that the private colleges he has contacted to find a solution to this issue, have not responded.
“Most students I have interacted with, have a fear of calling out their education providers for the fear of adverse action against them. One young man is so upset that he has started taking anti-depressant medicine because he can’t afford the fee right away,” says Mr Singh.
'The law is watching'
When SBS Punjabi took this matter up with the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE), they reminded Australia’s education providers about the law governing them.
“International students, including those who are still overseas on a student visa and intend to study in Australia when travel permits, are protected under Australia’s legislative framework. Under that framework, education providers cannot require the student to pay more than 50 per cent of their total tuition fees in advance, without the student’s agreement,” a DESE spokesperson said.
The spokesperson also said that education providers must have a written agreement with each student, setting out the terms and conditions that apply including the fees they are required to pay, the payment deadlines and any refunds for which they may be eligible.
While major tertiary educators of Australia have offered support by deferring courses, making payment plans or providing cashbacks, some RTOs have done the contrary, SBS Punjabi has learnt.
'Pay now or don't come'
Gurmail Singh, a student of Sydney’s Australian Health and Management Institute, has been stranded in New Delhi, India’s capital city, since February.
“In a matter of a few weeks, I have received not one but three emails from AHMI asking me to deposit my fee otherwise my CoE will not remain valid. I replied that I am stranded in India and won’t be able to do so till I return to Australia,” says Mr Singh, whose student visa is valid till mid-September this year.
“I was worried that if they cancel my CoE, my visa will become invalid. With great difficulty, I arranged for $4,000 to be paid to AHMI as they didn’t hesitate in sending me two more warning letters. I neither have any income in India, nor savings. But they won’t understand,” Mr Singh laments.
He says many of his friends are facing an identical situation but are hesitant to come out and speak up against their education providers.
“My friends are also currently stranded all over India. We keep discussing these warning letters over the phone but most of us don’t want to talk to the media about it as they expect adverse action from their colleges. They even discouraged me from doing so,” adds Mr Singh.
Effect on mental health
A friend of two students enrolled in AAPoly at Melbourne has told SBS Punjabi on conditions of anonymity that they have been taking medical treatment for their mental health since being “forced” to pay their tuition fee by email.
“When they requested the college for deferment of their course, they got no reply. However, they received an email which they feel threatened to cancel their CoE the following day if fees remain unpaid. They have been under tremendous mental anxiety and have been prescribed anti-depressant medicine by a doctor in India,” he adds.
Some aside from RTOs, some universities have also gone down that road of issuing warning letters to their students who are stranded overseas due to the coronavirus.
No easy payment plans
Inderpreet Singh is a student of the Sydney campus of the University of Sunshine Coast. Since February, he has been continuing his studies online from his family home in Jammu, in northern India.
“Most recently, my university sent me an email on July 22 to deposit nearly $3,000 in full for the last course that I’m currently enrolled in, by July 31. Otherwise, they’ll not only charge me a late fee of $300 but also cancel my enrolment and notify the Department of Home Affairs,” says Mr Singh.
He had received another fee demand letter before this.
“I have just paid my last semester fee based on that email. Now, they are again demanding the full fee. When other universities are supporting their students during COVID-19, I don’t understand why my university is pressuring me to pay now and in lumpsum,” adds Mr Singh.
'Feel free to speak up'
International Student Support, which organised the video conference in which this matter was first raised, are of the opinion that international students stranded overseas must be given a payment plan that suits their financial and physical limitations during the pandemic.
The DESE spokesperson also encouraged to speak to their education providers if they have any concerns about their ability to pay fees.
“Providers may choose to lower fees, renegotiate a payment plan or suspend the student’s enrolment for a period of time. Students can find more information here, including on making complaints and getting help if they are not satisfied after discussions with their education provider,” the spokesperson advised.
People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.
If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.
News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus