Michael Morrah: It's the system, not the students that have failed

Students holed up in a Ponsonby church (Michael Morrah / Newshub.)
The students have always maintained they were the victims, not the perpetrators of fraud (Michael Morrah / Newshub.)

OPINION: Those who think the Indian students deserve to be booted out of the country for fraud are misguided and ignorant of the facts.

For years, New Zealand has allowed unlicensed education agents to promote Kiwi-run schools to the young and desperate in major centres like Mumbai and Hyderabad in India. In fact, this is still happening right now.

These agents are in a position of authority - they're trusted as the 'experts' and make it very clear that THEY have direct relationships with Kiwi schools and can change the fortunes of their clients.

The group of students who have been the subject of so much attention made a mistake when they signed a bit of paper as instructed by their agent. It would later transpire that agents faked bank loan documents and added them to the students' files so immigration officials would be satisfied that they had enough cash to begin their new life in New Zealand.

The students have always maintained they were unaware such documents were included in their application, and say they had ample money to pay for school fees and look after themselves in any event. All of them borrowed thousands from their parents - who saw them off at the airport with great expectations.

They were no doubt naive and too trusting, but is there a shred of evidence that they deliberately, knowingly intended to deceive? No, there isn't. Forcefully deporting the group will not solve the problem.

There are thousands of education agents in India and they're driven to process students because the Kiwi-run universities and private training establishments pay big commissions. According to the Government's own reports, the cash offered to agents by Kiwi education providers is taken from the student's first year tuition fees and is typically around 30-40 percent, but can be as high as 50 percent. So we are talking thousands of dollars per student who gets enrolled successfully.

Unscrupulous agents will do whatever it takes to get a student's application accepted - even if it means committing fraud. Fake bank loan documents are one of the most common tricks.

The students sought sanctuary at a church after getting notices of deportation (Michael Morrah / Newshub.)
The students sought sanctuary at a church after getting notices of deportation (Michael Morrah / Newshub.)

The extent of fraud and corruption with agents in the Indian market has been known for a long time, but nothing has been done to fix the problem until recently. It was Newshub that first publicly revealed the extent of the issue Immigration New Zealand's Mumbai office was facing in May last year. In just 16 weeks, officials uncovered 369 cases of fraud.   

As it happened, in that same month, Immigration New Zealand and NZQA changed their policies in relation to agents and their relationships with Kiwi schools. All agent-related fraud started to be reported directly to the providers, and providers were told to do reference checks of agents and terminate contracts with any illegal operators.

It's incredible that this wasn't already happening.

The nine students who have been the subject of so much attention have been told they face deportation because they signed their visa paperwork, declaring everything was true and correct.

But let's remember that this fraud, which is apparently the students' fault, was discovered more than six months after the students had arrived in the country. That's right - it was Immigration New Zealand that processed their applications in the first place and said everything was fine. After the controversy over the massive fraud rates in Mumbai, it appears compliance teams have gone over hundreds of applications and worked out that there were indeed problems.

You can imagine the shock for the students when in the middle of their studies in a foreign country, they were told they'd committed fraud and needed to leave. The fact of the matter is it was the agents who committed fraud. The students, in my opinion, appear to be nothing more than unwitting victims. I've interviewed all of them - I simply don't believe they've tried to cheat the system.

Lawyer Alastair McClymont (Michael Morrah / Newshub.)
Lawyer Alastair McClymont has been representing the students for the past few months (Michael Morrah / Newshub.)

From a legal perspective, Immigration New Zealand may have a case to make them leave. But it's certainly not the way most Kiwis would expect the situation is handled when you consider the context and history to this issue.

What's even more confusing is that in 2015, Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse allowed 600 Filipino dairy workers to stay in the country after they admitted providing false information to get their work visas. Yes, they confessed to being fraudulent, yet they were told: We'll give you another chance.

The minister says the dairy workers and student cases are very different.

No they're not.

It's the system, not the students that have failed.

Maybe that fact is starting to be acknowledged. In the last couple of days, it appears the Government's decided that dragging the men off to the airport would be a terrible look and they're negotiating a voluntary exit. The students may even be able to reapply to return.

But this will come as little consolation - the students have sunk tens of thousands of dollars into trying to get an education here. They tell me they never wanted to come here to become residents. What they did want was an education and work experience that would lift them above their peers back home and make them more employable internationally. They may well try and return, but they'd need another small fortune to do that.

Michael Morrah is Newshub's Pacific affairs correspondent.

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