The education company at the centre of the donations furore that halted the front bench career of Labor senator Sam Dastyari is one of the greatest beneficiaries of the government’s new streamlined visa program, new data from the federal Department of Education reveals.
Data released this week shows that 98.5 per cent of Top Education students are international, more than double the Australian private higher education institution average of 42 per cent. It has one of the highest proportions of international students of any private higher education institution in NSW.
Of the 13 local students the institution has enrolled, only 46 per cent successfully completed their first year.
Last year, the 1000 student institution was one of only 22 private education providers to be granted access to the government’s simplified student visa framework, previously only available to universities. The move fast tracked the process for international students to obtain visas and enrol at the Eveleigh campus, opening it up to millions of lucrative student dollars.
Top Education chief executive officer Minshen Zhu with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Top Education chief executive officer Minshen Zhu with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: Top Education
The company donated $44,275 to the Liberal Party in 2014/15, while also footing the $1670.82 personal bill for Senator Dastyari’s travel expenses that led to his resignation from Labor’s front bench this week.
Based on a conservative calculation that multiplies the cost of its cheapest degrees and diplomas across its student numbers, the institution, run out of a ground-floor office in a University of Sydney building, earned $10 million in international student fees last year.
But the actual figure may be much higher. Department data reveals that the college had 171 students listed in the discipline of “society and culture”. The only degree it offers in that area is law, costing each student $80,000, netting it up to $13 million.
Top Education is also the only non-university private provider to be accredited for its law degrees by the federal government’s Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency and one of a handful of Australian institutions to be listed on the Chinese government’s official “white listing” of preferred overseas institutions for Chinese college students.
In 2013, Labor senator Kim Carr rejected the company’s application for a streamlined visa when he was the minister responsible for higher education after being lobbied by its chief executive Minshen Zhu. He is a well-connected political figure in Australia and China as a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the Communist Party’s people’s forum.
On Friday, Mr Carr told Fairfax Media he was concerned about Top Education’s proposal because the Department of Immigration had advised him that there was a “very high level of risk” associated with the move to extend the simplified visa process.
“The department gave me emphatic advice that the risk levels of extending the simplified student visa framework were too high,” he said, referring to border protection concerns.
“Despite the fact that they had been significant contributors to the Labor Party, their case was not able to be sustained on the department’s advice at the time,” he said.
“There are some really serious questions to be asked here. How is it that this policy change occurred?”
On Friday, former federal education minister Christopher Pyne said any link between donations and the college’s visa application was “completely wrong”.
“The only reason they would have been given streamlined visa processing is they, along with 20 other education businesses in Australia, met the requirements that the public service decided were required,” he told Channel Nine. “It has nothing to do with the Liberal Party or the Labor Party or the government of the day.”
Top Education declined to comment.