A top education? Sam Dastyari’s donations trouble exposes the private college with impeccable connections.
Labor Senator Sam Dastyari has found himself under considerable scrutiny this week over a donation he received from Sydney’s Top Education Institute.
There is no doubt that Sam Dastyari is close to the Top Education Institute – otherwise he could scarcely have called on them to pay his parliamentary travel bill when he exceeded its cap. Close scrutiny has now also revealed that his disclosures on interstate travel have been sloppy, to say the least.
But Dastyari is not the only one to have links to Top Education. The private college is well-known in the corridors of power. Top Education’s director Minshen Zhu is one of the best-connected foreign donors in the country.
The Top Education Institute is headquartered in the Biotechnology Building of inner Sydney’s Australian Technology Park. It was the first Australian college to be on the Chinese government’s approved list of tertiary institutions. Top Education has achieved the prestigious TEQSA certification to offer Bachelors’ degrees. It is the only non-university institute to offer Australian-accredited law degrees at undergraduate level. This course was originally only approved with conditions in 2013, but was fully accredited without conditions in 2015.
Top Education’s chairperson Minshen Zhu is reported to have close links with the Chinese government, though exactly how close is difficult to ascertain. An ANU graduate, Dr Zhu was a board member of the Confucius Institute of the University of Sydney. He has been a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a consultative body that implies political influence. In 2012, former foreign minister Bob Carr also appointed him to a Chinese Ministerial Consultative Committee.
Criticism of Dastyari, particularly from Liberal Party senators such as Cory Bernardi and George Brandis, has focussed on Top Education’s links with the Chinese government. This is ironic. The public record shows that the Liberal Party also seems to enjoy close connections with Dr Zhu and the Top Education Institute.
Dr Zhu has been remarkably adept at convincing Australian politicians to help promote and market his institution. Indeed his college has received extraordinary attention from the most senior members of the LNP government.
As prime ministers, both Malcolm Turnbull and before him Tony Abbott found time to attend Top Education functions. Fairfax yesterday reported that he also met with Attorney-General George Brandis in April this year, and with Treasurer Scott Morrison in November 2015.
The payment of Senator Dastyari’s travel bill has caused him considerable embarrassment. But Dastyari’s $1,670 travel invoice is just a small indication of Top Education’s political largesse. Top Education has donated handsomely to both major parties in recent years. While Top Education initially favoured the ALP in donations, since the Liberal Party came to power in 2013, Top Education’s donations have shifted to the federal and New South Wales branches of the Liberals.
Australian Electoral Commission registries indicate that the Australian Labor Party has received at least $186,000 from Top Education since 2010. Between 2014 and 2015, Top Education has donated $44,275 to the Liberal national and New South Wales branches. Unusually, the Top Education Institute itself did not disclose any of its donations to the ALP to the AEC. They were disclosed by the ALP.
Dr Zhu and Top Education have also built plenty of face-to-face connections with top Liberal politicians. He is well-known in the party rooms of Parliament. Simple internet searches can easily find photos of Top Education’s supremo with Malcolm Turnbull, George Brandis and Julia Gillard.
There is also video footage and Facebook photos of Alex Hawke (now the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Security) speaking at the Top Education Institute on July 27 2015. Hawke was there on behalf of Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne, then the education minister. He even read out a special message from the Prime Minister. Such favours have been frugally bestowed on Australian public universities, who were at that stage engaged in fractious negotiations with Pyne over the govenrment’s policy of university fee deregulation.
Abbott and Pyne were already well-acquainted with the Top Education Institute. They met with the Institute’s senior management in September 2013, just a fortnight after the Abbott government was elected. On Top Education’s website, you can see a photo with Abbott prominently featured. He is pictured holding a brochure for the Institute’s new law school. The close relationship with the government has endured after Abbott’s demise as prime minister. On November 7 2015, Turnbull was photographed holding a course brochure at a dinner with Dr Zhu.
Yesterday, Attorney General George Brandis was keen to distinguish the payment of personal debt from political donations. “Indeed, many of us have met Mr Minshen Zhu and had dealings with the Top Education Institute but it appears only Senator Sam Dastyari has accepted money from him in settlement of a personal debt,” he told the Senate. Ordinary voters may question this distinction.
Dr Zhu’s big donations at ALP functions
The ALP has been Top Education’s most favoured donation recipient, with at least $186,000 donated to state and federal branches of the Labor Party since 2010. New Matilda attempted to contact ALP Federal Secretary George Wright about the ALP donations but ALP head office said that he was away and not available for comment. New Matilda understands that multiple donations from Top Education Institute are classified as ‘other receipts’ because they were paid at functions and events, rather than as financial gifts without any benefit in return.
The practice throws a spotlight on the increasing popularity of these ‘other receipts” as a category for donations disclosures. As Crikey’s Bernard Keane argued yesterday, “‘Other receipt’ is especially useful because any payment of any kind other than a donation — such as a tax refund, bank interest or a legitimate asset sale — gets lumped into that category, further reducing the clarity of disclosure.”
A donations spree in a time of higher education deregulation
The policy context for Top Education’s donations spree is instructive. Under a policy begun by the Gillard government and continued under the Coalition governments of Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, tertiary education in Australia has been opened up to the private sector in unprecedented ways.
As a result of these reforms, private education providers such as vocational colleges and institutes are now able to access federal government funding via the FEE-HELP system. This system plays a crucial role in Australian higher education, enabling students to study for expensive tertiary qualifications without paying anything upfront, by taking a loan out through the federal government. Without access to FEE-HELP, private colleges would find it much more difficult to sign up large numbers of domestic students.
Students at the Top Education Institute can access FEE-HELP.
As New Matilda has chronicled, the expansion of FEE-HELP to private colleges in the vocational sector has been a billion-dollar disaster for Australian education. Notorious swindlers like the Phoenix Institute and former stock market high-flyers Vocation moved into the sector, vacuumed up hundreds of millions of dollars in government education loans, and then collapsed.
The Top Education Institute is not without its own scandals. In May this year it was reported that TEI was offering internships at prestigious accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. For a cool $2,800, prospective interns could “work closely with PwC partners”, according to an advertisement on social network WeChat. In response, PwC and Top Education then scrambled to explain the advertisement as a misunderstanding; apparently the positions were in fact only a two week ‘development’ course fee.
The arrangement between Top Education and PwC got murkier. In June this year PwC Australia acquired a 15 per cent stake in TOP Education. PwC and Top openly spruiked its investment in Top Education as an opportunity to get involved in the lucrative export education trade.
According to this article on Top Education’s website:
TOP Education’s Chair of Council and former Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University, Emeritus Professor Brian Stoddart, said that TOP was delighted to align with PwC.
“PwC recognises the value of investment in education export services and of the services already provided by TOP as a leading private innovator in the sector,” he said.
New Matilda is not suggesting Dr Zhu or Top Education have done anything improper. However the generous donations on the public record highlight the assiduous efforts Dr Zhu has made to court major party politicians.
Examining Top Education’s lobbying efforts suggests that the real play here is probably not Chinese soft power or political influence. In fact, the real value of Top Education’s generosity may be about securing a foothold position in Australia’s increasingly-privatised higher education market. The advantages for a private college looking to cash in on a boom in overseas students looking to study at private universities are manifest.