Frequently asked questions for Private Education Providers

What does the Overseas Students Ombudsman do?

The Overseas Students Ombudsman resolves complaints and helps Private Education Providers to improve their policies and practices to prevent complains and enhance international education in Australia.

The Ombudsman investigates complaints about the actions and decisions of private registered education providers in connection with overseas students.

We also provide information about best practice complaints handling to help providers manage internal complaints effectively.

We publish reports on complaint trends, systemic problems and broader issues in international education that we identify through our investigations.

The Ombudsman Act 1976 was amended in 2011 to give the role of Overseas Students Ombudsman to the Commonwealth Ombudsman. The function commenced on 9 April 2011.

Do I have to use the Overseas Students Ombudsman?

Some providers have asked whether they have to use the Overseas Students Ombudsman, or can continue with arrangements they already have in place for external appeals. Standard 8 of the National Code 2007 requires providers to 'have arrangements in place for a person or body independent of and external to the registered provider to hear complaints or appeals arising from the registered provider's internal complaints and appeals process or refer students to an existing body where that body is appropriate for the complaint or appeal'. Providers can choose whether to use the Overseas Students Ombudsman as their external complaints and appeals body or make other arrangements as described in Standard 8.

What is a registered education provider?

All education providers must register with the Australian Government on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students (CRICOS) before enrolling overseas students in a course. You can check if an education provider is registered by visiting the CRICOS website at http://cricos.education.gov.au/

Who is an overseas student?

An overseas student is someone who is studying in Australia on a student visa, or intending to study on a student visa. The Overseas Students Ombudsman can also consider complaints from people who are no longer on a student visa, if their complaint relates to a time when they were, or intended to apply for one.

Student visas are defined in the regulations to the ESOS Act. The Overseas Students Ombudsman does not consider complaints from students, such as:

  • a person who satisfies the secondary criteria, but not the primary criteria, for a student visa (for example an overseas student's spouse)
  • an exchange student or AusAID student
  • an overseas student in a scheme or program approved by the Minister of Defence
  • an overseas student who has been approved under another scholarship scheme, or an exchange scheme, sponsored by the Commonwealth to undertake a course of study or training in Australia
  • Students on working holiday or visitor visas

If you have students the Overseas Students Ombudsman cannot help, you should explain their internal and any external complaint and appeal rights to them.

Where does the Overseas Students Ombudsman fit in the National Code?

Registered education providers must have an internal complaints handling and appeals process for overseas students under Standard 8 of the National Code of Practice for Registration Authorities and Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2007 (the National Code 2007).

Education providers must also advise students of their right to access an external complaint and appeals process if they are not satisfied with the internal complaint process or outcome. The Ombudsman provides an external complaint and appeals process for overseas students of Private Education Providers.

How can the Overseas Students Ombudsman help education providers?

The Overseas Students Ombudsman helps private providers by offering their students a free and independent external complaints mechanism. This helps providers meet their obligations under the National Code.

The Ombudsman has over 30 years experience in complaints handling and investigations. We also provide information about best practice complaint handling.

For information on this topic, you can download a copy of our Better Practice Complaint Handling for Education Providers Guide.

What can overseas students complain about?

Students can complain about their education provider if they believe the provider may not have followed the rules correctly or treated them fairly. Complaints might be about:

  • being refused admission to a course
  • course fees and due dates
  • course or provider transfers
  • being reported for failure to meet course progress or attendance requirements
  • cancellation of enrolment
  • accommodation or work arranged by a provider
  • incorrect advice given by a provider’s education agent.

The Ombudsman also considers cases of inaction or delay, for example, failure by a provider to issue student results within the normal timeframes, or failure to provide services that were included in the student’s written agreement with the education provider.

The Ombudsman would not normally investigate a complaint where a student took more than 12 months to complain.

Can the Ombudsman investigate without receiving a complaint?

Yes. The Ombudsman can investigate issues of concern which come to his attention, regardless of whether an individual has made a specific complaint on that issue.

How does the Ombudsman investigate?

The Overseas Students Ombudsman investigates in an independent and impartial way. The Ombudsman does not advocate for the student or the provider. Complaint investigations are conducted in private and are normally informal.

When a complaint is received, an assessment is first made about whether it is an issue that the Ombudsman can investigate. In some cases, the Ombudsman may decide not to investigate a complaint. This might be because:

  • the student has not complained to the education provider first, or
  • another organisation is better able to deal with the complaint.

If a decision is made to investigate a complaint, the Ombudsman will ask the education provider about the problem. The Ombudsman may request relevant documents, or information such as student records from the provider.

The Ombudsman can use formal powers to obtain documents from the provider. The Ombudsman also has the power to enter premises or require a provider to answer questions as part of an investigation.

What happens at the end of an investigation?

At the end of an investigation the Ombudsman may conclude that the provider has not acted unreasonably, and will advise the student and the provider of this decision.

In other cases, the Ombudsman may conclude that the provider failed to take appropriate action or the action appears to have been:

  • contrary to law
  • unreasonable, unjust, oppressive or improperly discriminatory or
  • otherwise, in all the circumstances, wrong.

Where that happens, the Ombudsman may recommend that a provider remedy the problem for example by:

  • apologising to a student
  • reconsidering a decision affecting a student
  • providing a refund
  • providing clearer information or
  • changing a policy or procedure.

Education providers are given an opportunity to comment on any recommendations made by the Ombudsman.

If the Ombudsman finds evidence which suggests misconduct, the Ombudsman can notify the provider’s principal executive officer.

Are education providers legally obliged to act on Ombudsman recommendations?

Standard 8.5 of the National Code 2007 states that if any external complaint handling or appeal process results in a decision that supports the student, the provider must immediately implement any decision, and/or corrective and preventative action required.

The Overseas Students Ombudsman gives education providers an opportunity to comment on its proposed decisions and any recommendations, before it finalises a complaint or external appeal. If an education provider does not act on the Ombudsman's final recommendations, the Ombudsman may report the provider to the relevant regulator for breaching Standard 8.5 of the National Code 2007.

Are results of Ombudsman investigations made public?

Results of individual complaint and external appeal investigations are not generally made public.

In some cases, the Ombudsman may report the education provider's actions to the relevant regulator under s 35A of the Ombudsman Act 1976, after giving the education provider an opportunity to comment first.

If the Ombudsman publishes a formal report under s 19ZQ of the Ombudsman Act 1976 relating to a specific education provider, he must provide a copy to the federal minister responsible for education, after giving the education provider an opportunity to comment first.

If the Ombudsman has asked an education provider to take remedial action but the provider has declined or delayed in taking that action, the Ombudsman can ask the federal minister responsible for education to table a copy of the Ombudsman’s findings and recommendations in the Parliament of Australia.

The Overseas Students Ombudsman also publishes an annual report describing the work undertaken in the last year with Private Education Providers and overseas students. This includes reporting on complaint trends, systemic problems or broader issues that have been identified in Ombudsman investigations. See: Annual Reports

Can the OSO investigate matters that occurred before it started?

Yes. The Overseas Students Ombudsman can investigate complaints about the actions or decisions of a private registered education provider that occurred before the Overseas Students Ombudsman role started. However, the Ombudsman would normally decline to investigate if a student has taken more than 12 months to complain.

Do providers have to wait for the Ombudsman complaint process to be completed, before reporting a student for failing to meet course progress or attendance requirements (standards 10 and 11)?

The answer to this could be 'yes' or 'no', depending on when the student contacted the Ombudsman to lodge the external appeal

It's 'yes' if the student contacted the Overseas Students Ombudsman within the provider's stated timeframe for lodging an external appeal.

In this case, standard 8.4 of the Code requires that the registered provider must maintain the student's enrolment while the complaints and appeals process is ongoing. The National Code Explanatory Guide says this means that the provider must maintain the student's enrolment (i.e. not report the student for unsatisfactory progress or attendance) until the external complaints process is complete and has supported the provider's decision to report. The Ombudsman will notify the provider when it commences an external complaint and appeal process and when this process is completed.

It's 'no' if the student lodges an external appeal outside the provider's stated timeframe.

In this case, the provider can report the student under s 19 of the ESOS Act. However, the Overseas Students Ombudsman can still investigate the complaint whether or not the student has been reported.

The provisions of standard 8.5 also still apply, which means that if the Ombudsman's investigation results in a decision that supports the student, the registered provider must immediately implement any decision and/or corrective and preventative action required and advise the student of the outcome.

For more information, see: National Code 2007 Explanatory Guide, Part D, Standard 8

Do providers have to wait for the Ombudsman complaint process to be completed, before cancelling a student’s enrolment for a reason other than unsatisfactory course progress or attendance (i.e. under standard 13)?

No. If the provider’s internal complaints process has upheld the cancellation decision, the provider can cancel the student’s enrolment, without waiting for the Ombudsman’s complaint process to be completed.

For more information, see: National Code 2007 Explanatory Guide, Part D, Standard 8