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 enhance the quality of 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.

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. The Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRTE) will revise the National Code so that the Overseas Students Ombudsman is the only external review body for private providers, except in South Australia. Until those changes are made, you do not have to use the Ombudsman, but our services are free and available to you and your students now.

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 cricos.deewr.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.

What is the legal basis for the Overseas Students Ombudsman’s role?

The Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Legislation Amendment Act 2011, which was passed by Parliament on 21 March 2011, created the role of the Overseas Students Ombudsman within the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

The legislation gives the Ombudsman the power to investigate complaints about private registered education providers in connection with overseas students who intend to study or are already studying in Australia on a student visa.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman has more than 30 years experience in complaints handling and investigations.

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. Providers will be asked to detail how the recommendations will be implemented, and the Ombudsman will follow up to see that this has occurred.

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?

Education providers are expected to comply with Ombudsman recommendations unless they have good reasons for not doing so. Education providers have an opportunity to give these reasons to the Ombudsman before an investigation is finalised. If they do not act on the recommendations, the Ombudsman may publish a formal report.

Standard 8 of the National Code 2007 states that providers must immediately implement any decision, and/or corrective and preventative action, required by an external complaint handling or appeal process.

Are results of Ombudsman investigations made public?

If the Ombudsman publishes a formal report, he must provide a copy to the federal minister responsible for education.

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.

Does the provider have a right of reply?

Yes. Before the Overseas Students Ombudsman gives a copy of a report to the minister responsible for education or makes it public, the provider is given an opportunity to comment on the report and its recommendations.

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