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Transcript of joint press conference interview: 9 March 2010: Baird Review into International Education; Youth Allowance; Paid Parental Leave.
The Hon Julia Gillard MP
Minister for Education. Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Minister for Social Inclusion Deputy Prime Minister
9 March, 2010
Joint Press Conference with Bruce Baird
E&OE TRANSCRIPT JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH BRUCE BAIRD 1215PM TUESDAY 9 MARCH 2010
ISSUES: Baird Review into International Education; Youth Allowance; Paid Parental Leave
BRUCE BAIRD: A number of you have been following this issue for some time, and it’s clear after looking at international education for some six months and speaking to ranges of groups around Australia - I’ve been round Australia several times talking to groups, both students and education providers - that there are a significant number of problems that relate to international education.
I think first and foremost is the problems of colleges that have been established with inappropriate regulatory control, without checking the finances and the level of risk in establishing their operation; wrong information provided to students, a skewing of the income into Australia in relation to permanent migration outcomes; and also the lack of attempts to integrate students into the Australian life.
The assurance fund itself has had problems, whereby with the closure of colleges there’s been a slowness in placing students. The assurance fund has been reduced because of the call on the closure of a number of these colleges, and the placement has been slow - sometimes up to six months and sometimes not at all.
I think that has damaged the international image of Australian education, both in terms of the slowness and closures of the colleges and also the fact that we have had colleges that have been allowed to be established that shouldn’t have been allowed in the first place.
So inadequate regulation, more concern with it would appear in terms of the amount of dollars that we get in from this sector, which is now worth about $17 billion and one of our major export incomes. And if it is so important, we need to look at the long-term sustainability of the sector, to the welfare of the students when they’re here, - what happens when they want to complain when they find that the level of courses are inadequate, where students are working an excessive number of hours without being monitored, that they’re being asked to work in workplaces that are aligned with the colleges at rates which are below
normal Australian awards and conditions, and that accommodation where - sometimes are run by the college providers - where we had an example in Brisbane of 37 students staying at one place.
So that obviously it’s a sector which is important and growing, and of course the numbers have more than doubled over the last few years, and it’s important that we get it right in terms of the future both in terms of regulation and where we go.
So in terms of the recommendations that we have here, we see it as both simpler, smarter, stronger.
Stronger in terms of making it tougher from entry point in, so that we’ll be looking at financials, the track record in terms of have they had experience in teaching Australian students, the bona fides of those who are running the colleges, as being an important regulatory part. And for the higher risk applicants, they won’t be allowed in. You’ve seen in terms of we plan to have an independent group of accountants panel, that they need to refer their applications to, if they’re graded as being high risk, they wouldn’t be accredited. Similarly, if they’re medium to lower risk, they would have to pay a higher rate of registration and be monitored more regularly. So that’s the first part of the increased regulatory responsibility. We’re calling on the states to increase the number of people who look after this sector because we’ve seen no increase in the number looking after these areas but a doubling of the number of students that are in the area. So that’s the important secondary part of making it stronger.
And also in terms of the information that’s provided, of ensuring that where there’s false information provided by the agents, that the education providers are made responsible for that, and that they are fined if there’s evidence of continuing wrong information, because in our roundtables we found the students were saying we just got wrong information - the agent lied to us. And we need to stop that.
We’ve also got to stop the poaching from one college to another. So you’ve seen around Flinders Street Station people are offering these flyers and saying if you want to get permanent residency, if you want to do your course on weekends, this is where you go.
So to outlaw the commissions for the transfer of students if they’re onshore so to stop that poaching activity is important now.
And then we have looked at in particular the central regulation with the development of TEQSA, which is as you know the bringing together of the one quality assurance body, the university or tertiary education group, also moving as they did in COAG to have one group for the VET vocational sector. One regulator for the industry rather than having every state and the commonwealth involved.
So as it evolves over the next couple of years with the central regulatory authority, that will be important for quality.
And then in terms of students’ welfare itself, we are recommending that we have education hubs where students can go and provide, have information if they want to complain, or to provide advice on having an excessive amount of requirements in terms of work experience,
not being paid enough, the teaching course is inappropriate, or I’m looking for work - how do I go about that? So the education hubs to provide better advice.
And then expanding the role of the ombudsman so that they can take on board problem cases with ease. At the moment it’s not clear cut, and in South Australia they have a the vocational adviser, but enlarging that in other states, if they can take their case to the ombudsman and have an outcome, hopefully they’ll be more facilitation with issues rather than in six months time, they would actually be involved in solving disputes. So improving the complaints mechanism for students.
And the final part was the assurance fund. Instead of at the moment, there are three levels. Firstly if a college fails in terms of financial resources, the college provider is meant to assist in finding another place. That rarely happens because they have clearly run out of funds and so their ability to assist, they’re often left to go overseas, taken their money and gone.
And the second part is the TAS schemes, the tuition assurance schemes, which find places for other students. Now in fact that has been an increasingly difficult task. Unless people are being placed, and they fall through to the next level which is the assurance fund, the calls on that assurance fund are increasing, and unless we do something about it there will be a real challenge in terms of the amount of funds that are left.
So we’re talking about a one single group, and we’ve had actuarial advice and support to do this. Colleges would be assessed on a risk basis in terms of the premiums they charge, it would include both public and private sector, so TAFEs and universities would be involved in that as well in terms of placements. And we believe that would provide, in terms of also one place for the students to go to for placement if the college falls over, with the being emphasis on the student and their rapid placement. And of course these educational hubs would be able to also provide advice, an immediate way of contacting students.
So it is about stronger entry as a provider, tough requirements based on risk assessment and stronger regulation, and of course where there are breaches, actual fines taking place on the providers.
Smarter in terms of just instead of having an approach where the students have got to try and get information from where they can, there’d be one source of information comparing colleges in terms of number of students they have, the diversity students within the mix, which has been one of the issues. And so there is one approach in terms of getting the information more easily.
And then simpler in terms of one approach, in terms of one regulator, and one body for looking after tuition assurance.
That’s our general approach. There are certainly issues to address. I believe this report goes a long way to recognising how we should approach it.
I’d like to make a special mention of the team that supported me in this led by Linda Laker.
JULIA GILLARD: Can I respond to that firstly by thanking Bruce very much for his work in delivering this review and report and echoing his words of thanks to the team that has worked with him.
International educational is important to this country. It’s important to our reputation as a country today. It’s important to our reputation as a country tomorrow, because every student who comes here and believes they’ve had a great educational experience in this country ends up being a long term ambassador for Australia when they go and make their future lives back home.
And of course, international education is important to our economy.
Having received the report from Bruce Baird, I can respond as follows. It is our predisposition as a Government to move to amend legislation as soon as possible to deal with some of the stronger categories that Bruce outlined, particularly to lift the bar for entry into being an education provider for international students and also to better regulate the way in which education agents are dealt with by education institutions here.
And of course as Bruce knows, and as others who follow international education know, getting poor advice from education agents overseas before students come here has been a frequently cited cause of concern by international students.
When I say that’s the Government’s predisposition, obviously we have our own internal processes to work through and I have asked Mr Baird to brief the Opposition. This is an area in which we continue to conduct business with a spirit of bipartisanship and obviously I would be interested in the Opposition’s response to the recommendations that Mr Baird has made about legislative change and the ones that the Government has identified for quick action.
Then in relation to other recommendations made by Mr Baird, a set of them will need to go out for consultation with the international education industry, including the proposals about risk rating.
A set will feed into our discussions with states and territories about an international students strategy and better work together for international students.
A set will dealt with as we build the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) which will become the new national regulator for tertiary education, both universities and vocational education and training.
And a set of recommendations will be referred to my colleagues. There are some recommendations dealing with the question of health insurance; I will refer to the Minister for Health. There are some recommendations dealing with immigration matters; I will refer to the Minister for Immigration and the idea about the creation of the Ombudsman, having the Ombudsman’s powers broadened to deal with complaints from international students will be referred to the Prime Minister’s department itself as it has responsibility for the Ombudsman.
But can I say this is a very comprehensive, high quality piece of work. I do very much thank Bruce Baird for undertaking it. I thank him for its delivery in this form. We want to get on with the job with actioning a number of these recommendations and certainly the report overall is going to be a foundation stone for all of the further work in the international education area.
So we’re happy to take questions on the actual report or international education.
JOURNALIST: Mr Baird, violence against international students has been a big issue in the sector. Has your report gone into addressing that at all?
BRUCE BAIRD: Well the issue of transport, accommodation and safety has been more directed towards the COAG report. But nevertheless it was an issue that was discussed in various forums. I’ve got to say in all honesty, with the student forums it was not high on the agenda. They were more focussed on some other issues.
But from my point of view I think it is important that we have a coordination of the various police commissioners around Australia to focus on the issue, to undertake research based on different cultural groups that are in the country and the level of assault against them.
I think we also need to do more work in terms of social inclusion. And part of the deal of the education hubs is actually to encourage greater interaction with the students with the Australian community. There may be a need at some stage for a great educational community in terms of the value of this sector of international education to our overall welfare as a community and the importance for their inclusion. Because it was one of the factors that was raised constantly by the student groups was that often that they felt that degree of exclusion and I think none of us would want that and it is a concern. But obviously the degree to which we undertake further research in terms of the racism aspect - is it real; Is it not? —but on the practical level to do more in terms of social inclusion.
JOURNALIST: Mr Baird, what about transport concessions? Victoria and New South Wales are the only states that don’t give them to international students. What’s your view on that?
BRUCE BAIRD: Well as a former minister for transport for New South Wales for seven years I have an interest and I know why the transport ministers would want to protect their revenue base. Nevertheless it was an issue that was raised at every single forum. The students believe it’s discriminatory, that they have paid a large amount in terms of fees and when there is one set of charges that applies to domestic students and one to international students, there is a resentment there. And states certainly are recipients, New South Wales it’s worth $7 billion a year to their economy and I believe a small amount of cost to grant the transport concessions would be appropriate. It may be useful in order to get the two large states involved, New South Wales and Victoria, there’s maybe an upfront payment, a small amount that would pay for a pass for a year.
But discrimination in terms of travel passes, goes to the very heart…these people…these students need to feel part of Australia and I think that is part of it.
JOURNALIST: Mr Baird, how badly has the sector been distorted by these institutions who have merely been a conduit to students to get visas? And what proportion of institutions do you think have just been set up in this sort of opportunistic fashion?
BRUCE BAIRD: I can only speak honestly. I think there has been quite a distortion which started some time ago. And we have permanent residency factories. Those that are in that grouping if you ask any of the good providers, they will quickly name those that they believe are the dodgy operators who are rorting the system. And it is those groups that we should be directing our attention to. And I certainly think that they represent, in my view, those who have been predominantly aimed at the permanent residency outcomes, rather than the education one, would probably represent 20 per cent of the vocational sector, in my view.
And that is the general consensus. We haven’t done a quantitative analysis of them - that’s my sense of it.
JOURNALIST: So how many dodgy students is that, Mr Baird?
BRUCE BAIRD: I don’t believe there is such as thing as a ‘dodgy student.’
JOURNALIST: Sorry, let me rephrase it. I mean, how many people have…if there is 20 per cent of the vocational sector is a permanent resident factory, how many people are we talking about here?
BRUCE BAIRD: I’m not saying that all of them are driven simply by the permanent residency but there is 20 per cent that you would have concerns about. Maybe that’s the way they’ve pitched it. It may be the level of education, it could be other factors involved, or the bona fides of those have run. And of those who come here looking for permanent residency, obviously there is a percentage of those where that’s their main aim. But there is nothing new in that - if you look around the world, UK, Canada, USA, it is a very similar phenomenon. And I would strongly support the move, the changes that Minister Evans made in decoupling the MODL list from the entry points that you gain seeking permanent residency.
That change was necessary, it was distorting influence in terms of the education market and I support him and applaud him for making what is a tough decision. It will have its implications, but if we are going to have a long term, sustainable industry, the nettle has to be grasped and recognise that that was going on, distorting the market and has to be changed and that change is a very significant one.
JOURNALIST: What about those students that were caught in that though when they were legitimately doing courses such as accounting and then they’ve put thousands of dollars in, not just dodgy colleges but legitimate universities, as international students; haven’t they now been left in thousands of dollars of wasted money because they won’t be able to get permanent residency with those qualifications?
BRUCE BAIRD: I think that you, in our report we actually talk about the need for grandfathering and those students who have already applied for permanent residency will be able to continue with the benefit of those MODL list points or critical list which is, you know, transferred from the MODL list to the critical skills list and for those who are already here, that they will be looked individually.
But yes, there has been a significant investment and students did come under a certain understanding that this was the regulation and I think that we need to ensure that in the future there is gradual changes and this was necessary this change but the sudden and dramatic changes will affect the industry and grandfathering I think is an important thing to be looked at.
JOURNALIST: Ms Gillard, are you telling overseas students to come here for an education not a visa?
JULIA GILLARD: Absolutely and both I and the Minister for Immigration have made that absolutely clear. We’re saying to international students, come, study in this country, it’s a
great place to study but the purpose of coming here as a student is to engage in study and to end up with a qualification, not with an immigration pathway.
JOURNALIST: Mr Baird, what impact do you think the recent changes including the immigration changes will have on our enrolment numbers from overseas students?
BRUCE BAIRD: Well they’ve already dropped you know but we’ve got a perfect storm in terms of the GFC, the increase in the value of the Australian dollar, the negative publicity we’ve had in relation to the unrest in Melbourne and further, that there’s been stronger vetting at the high commissions in India and other places so that the numbers who are actually getting through are less. So there has been an impact but I believe that it’s necessary for long term sustainability to the industry.
JOURNALIST: So what sort of financial hit can the industry expect?
BRUCE BAIRD: Well, you know, that depends. I mean if they have built their model on attracting students from one source and it has been geared predominantly to permanent residency so that the courses that are being offered are in certain areas and you know what they are - horticulture, hospitality, commercial cooking, hairdressing, IT, accounting, etc - it’s built on that premise and obviously there are challenges to them but if they are offering quality education it should continue.
JOURNALIST: Mr Baird, what have you suggested in relation to accommodation? There has been a lot of problems in Brisbane, with you know, houses in the suburbs being used to house sort of twenty people with portaloos out the back and things like that. I mean the kids are being charged a fortune for it.
BRUCE BAIRD: Well again that’s an issue that is being addressed specifically with COAG but certainly it was an issue raised at all the forums by the students and their concern with appropriate accommodation. Quite often you find if you talk to the education providers, they set up for them accommodation and they’re only in it for a matter of weeks before they find one of their mates so they share a place with to reduce their overall cost because it’s often a fairly expensive exercise coming.
But I think that we should be looking at educational providers putting more resources into accommodation and also taking on the role of good lessors of premises so that they can sub-lease to students and have the control over that but that work is going to be continued within the COAG process.
JOURNALIST: Mr Baird, do you think that your recommendations and the changes that might follow them will put some colleges out of business and is that what needs to happen?
BRUCE BAIRD: Well I believe that what the changes will do is put the industry on a stronger long term sustainable basis and colleges that were high risk colleges in the first place, their viability may be put under challenge.
But the question for us is whether that’s what we really wanted in terms of our educational arrangements and there are costs to be (inaudible) but we believe you shouldn’t have a half-hearted approach to this.
Either you address the problem the same was as Minister Evans did and said look this is the problem, let’s address it, it’s going to be tough in the same ways in terms of these changes and if, you know, we’re going to have the image that we want which is not only in terms of education but branding in relation to tourism and our exports generally and the image of the country in foreign affairs and we need to have a strong content in terms of the education, not a fly by night based on quick profits. It’s got to be a different education scene.
JOURNALIST: And on the issue of information provision for students and this may be one for the Minister as well, do you think that something like the My University website should be used to provide information to international students or a companion site to that should be set up?
JULIA GILLARD: With the recommendation about more transparency, I support that. I think we need to talk to the states and territories about achieving that but I believe we should put that capacity up there as soon as it can be done.
Obviously when we do the longer term job with My University which is going to require us to work through a very detailed set of issues about how you measure quality, particularly quality in teaching and learning at universities, it will make sense to have a connection between the two so that you can easily move from the international students direct information into My University (inaudible).
BRUCE BAIRD: (inaudible) council in terms of airing a whole number of factors that you would want to compare as an international student coming to Australia. Then there is another one which sets out the full details of that study in Australia which would be in a whole number of different languages as well.
JOURNALIST: So, Minister, are you planning a site like My University or My School but which would cover vocational providers, including private ones?
JULIA GILLARD: That’s a question we need to work through but my view is that more information is always better. Of course vocational education and training has been regulated by the states so we are not the custodians of the quality data at this stage. As we build the new national agency which will regulate both universities and VET, obviously some things will become possible in the future that haven’t been possible in the past.
But my view, whether it’s our My Child website, whether it’s the My School website or the future for higher education, is if students are to make informed choices, the more information they have, the better.
JOURNALIST: Mr Baird, how many colleges do you think are at high risk of closure and how much more will they pay in terms of levies?
BRUCE BAIRD: Well in terms of actuarial costs we’ve had that work carried out in terms of the assurance fund and there’d obviously be a premium that they’d pay. But what you’ve got to bear in mind is in terms of these what we called high risk colleges, a lot of them, the changes were afoot and so they’ve been making changes in terms of the international mix of students that they’ve been having so, you know, look they’re going to be undoubtedly some closures and that’s been happening anyway and this may accelerate for some of them.
But the smarter ones have sat back and got themselves organised. I mean, we had, I’ve had quite a bit of discussions with some of the liquidators and the college administrators who say there’s some of the colleges that were fairly sound and diversity of courses they were running but it was a straight financial exercise, overextending and one major one that fell over recently.
And one of our recommendations is, in terms of the new assurance fund, that they would have a capacity in terms of a virtual group, made up of key people from the department and some people are involved in ABC Learning for example, where if they decide a college is really important to keep viable for a period, and while they have expressions of interest from perhaps other people to take it over which would then ensure that the students can continue on, they have all their records etc, and that was a strong recommendation from the administrators that we spoke to who’d been involved in the sector.
JOURNALIST: So would there be some sort of public subsidy for colleges that might be at risk?
BRUCE BAIRD: No, talking within the fund itself so you’ve got where it would prove, you know, because if you get a college closed prematurely you’ve got payout in terms of the students, the refund of their courses, the placement of the students elsewhere but you’ve also got the teachers and lecturers who are there. They need to have the compensation that comes out of it as well.
So we’re saying if it in fact is a similar amount or even less to continue it going for several weeks, then you can pay it out of that fund to keep it afloat while expressions of interest are had. I understand there’s an example of a major college that fell over, there were several large organisations that were interested in the takeover but things move so quickly and it’s closed up obviously trading insolently is not appropriate but if the administrators kept it alive for a few weeks it’s thought it could solve some of the issues.
JULIA GILLARD: I think what we might do, I know that for the highly skilled aficionados in the group there may be some more questions as people absorb the report that they want to put to Mr Baird and we can find a way of doing that, but given sitting days and other things are there questions on any other areas people wanted to ask?
JOURNALIST: Minister, what’s your view on transport concession for international students. Do you think Victoria and New South Wales should extend them and is that something that’s being looked at as part of the COAG process?
JULIA GILLARD: We are obviously involved in a set of discussions with states and territories about better support for international students. Transport concessions were a big item that came out of our international students round table. That’s obviously referred to in Mr Baird’s review so we’ll continue to have those discussions. I’m not in a position today to indicate where they might conclude but I believe that the states and territories do understand that this is an important issue for international students.
BRUCE BAIRD: We’ve got to be also clear in terms of when I had the briefing from the Minister she said you can regard everything as being on the table so there were no restrictions in what I could look at, what I could say and I really appreciate that.
JOURNALIST: Minister, can I ask something about Youth Allowance?
JULIA GILLARD: Yep, sure.
JOURNALIST: You’ve got a date with Christopher Pyne tonight?
JULIA GILLARD: Well I wouldn’t use that terminology but yes I will be meeting with Mr Pyne in his office at 6:30.
JOURNALIST: Are you optimistic about what can be achieved there? Are you taking up a specific compromise offer to him or has he come to you with a specific proposal?
JULIA GILLARD: I’ve asked Mr Pyne to supply to me the amendments that the Opposition now seeks to pursue. As people would know as this debate has unfolded in the Parliament, the Opposition has moved different amendments at different times. I’ve asked Mr Pyne to identify to me which ones the Opposition is intending to pursue or if they have new amendments. I’ve also asked him to clarify the costings of those amendments. My department has certainly costed those amendments. As yet I haven’t received anything from Mr Pyne that would indicate which amendments they intend to pursue.
JOURNALIST: Ms Gillard, on paid parental leave, would the Government consider changing its scheme at all if the Opposition’s proposal is popular?
JULIA GILLARD: Well can I say I think the Government of course has brought to the Australian people a well thought out, costed paid parental leave scheme. When we look at the Opposition’s proposal, Mr Abbott’s proposal, we’ve got a dirty half dozen of problems.
It breaks Mr Abbot’s promise about no new taxes. Opposition spokespeople can’t even agree whether or not it’s a tax. Sharman Stone says one thing, Barnaby Joyce says another. The Opposition spokespeople can’t agree who is being taxed. Some of them say businesses with turnovers of $5 million; some say businesses that pay $5 million or more in tax -they are two quite different things. It’s not clear whether it’s been taken to the Shadow Cabinet. Certainly Mr Abbott didn’t bother talking to his economics spokespeople about it and last but by no means least there has been no explanation from Mr Abbott about what this great big, new tax means for costs on working families.
If you tax companies more then that feeds through into prices, that feeds through into prices that working families have to pay everyday. Those working families are already under cost of living pressures without Mr Abbott’s great big, new tax.
JOURNALIST: Are you concerned that we may end up though with no parental leave scheme given that there’s always two competing ideas and they could knock each other out sort of thing?
JULIA GILLARD: All of that is a question for Mr Abbott. What we know generally about the Opposition is when we bring proposals that will help families, their first reaction is to say no and then sometime later they may read it.
We saw that on display last week with the attitude of Mr Pyne in the national curriculum; didn’t bother to study it or absorb it. He used his word count function on the computer and
then rushed out and said he’d rip it up and Mr Abbott was already saying no to the Prime Minister’s health reform plan before it was possible that he could have read the plan itself.
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