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Thursday, 13 October 2005
Page: 20

Mr FARMER (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education, Science and Training) (10:32 AM) —Before I begin summing up the debate on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (2005 Measures No. 4) Bill 2005 and cognate bill, I would like to set the record straight in relation to some funding that is provided by the Australian government for our universities and for higher education. If you listen to members of the opposition, you would think that there had been a significant amount of money taken away from our universities and higher education sector. In fact, it is quite the opposite. There will be, and there has been as a result of the work of the Minister for Education, Science and Training and his reforms to the higher education sector, an extra $11 billion of new money that will be injected into the higher education sector over the next 10 years.

In summing up, I would like to thank all of those who spoke on the bill for their interest in this significant development in higher education in Australia. The Australian government is committed to developing a strong, high-quality higher education sector which not only underpins our economic, cultural and social development but also competes with the best on the international level. Higher education is increasingly being delivered in a global context. Just as Australian universities are establishing branches, campuses and alliances in other countries, foreign universities are similarly looking to expand their operations into Australia. The changes proposed by these bills to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 provide a framework for the higher education sector in Australia that will ensure the sector’s international competitiveness. The amendments will enable higher quality foreign universities which want to offer courses to Australian and international students in Australia to be listed as higher education providers in the Higher Education Support Act 2003.

Together with the amendments to the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000, the changes will allow Carnegie Mellon University, a private United States based institution, to operate an overseas branch in Australia. Carnegie Mellon University will offer education and training services to international and domestic students in Australia for the commencement of the 2006 academic year. Carnegie Mellon University is a prestigious private, not-for-profit institution, currently ranked No. 38 out of 200 on the Times Higher Education Supplement ranking of world universities and ranked 54 out of 500 on the Jiao Tong University’s ranking of top world universities. These amendments reflect the Australian government’s commitment to giving students greater choice of excellence in higher education. The anticipated entry of Carnegie Mellon University into Australia will enhance that choice.

The bill inserts a new list of table C providers, being overseas higher education institutions with Australian branches that have been approved under the national protocols for the higher education approval process. Table C providers will have limited access to certain Commonwealth assistance, including FEE-HELP and OS-HELP. As a result, Australian students studying at Carnegie Mellon University will have access to the same entitlements that they would if they had enrolled at an Australian higher education provider, reflecting the Australian government’s commitment to ensuring that all eligible Australian students are granted equal access to entitlements. The introduction of Carnegie Mellon will invigorate the Australian higher education sector, generating worldwide interest and publicity. It will also attract more students to Adelaide from the Asia-Pacific region, bringing increased revenue and prestige to South Australia as an international centre for higher education.

The amendments will also strengthen tuition assurance requirements under the Higher Education Support Act 2003. The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (2005 Measures No. 4) Bill 2005 contains a number of amendments to the act that better reflect the policy intent of tuition assurance requirements. These amendments include mechanisms that will provide improved, comprehensive consumer protection for students studying at non-table A providers in the event that a higher education provider ceases to offer a course in which the student was enrolled. The amendments clarify that, where a private provider ceases to offer a course, students will not be financially disadvantaged. Students can either switch to another higher education provider without incurring any additional cost or have the option of obtaining a refund for the uncompleted units. If a student chooses to transfer to another provider, the amendments ensure that the student will not pay twice for that unit. The second provider will bear the cost, as is the current practice. Where the refund option is taken, any HELP debt will be remitted, and the student learning entitlement and FEE-HELP balances are to be repaid to the student. Under the tuition assurance, a student who transfers to another provider and then withdraws due to illness or family circumstances will also be able to obtain a refund and a recrediting of the student learning entitlement. The second provider will not bear any cost in such cases.

The Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 established the national elements for the regulation of international education and sought to ensure international students receive the education and training for which they have paid. The act strengthened public confidence in the student visa program by ensuring that only genuine students come to Australia to study under these arrangements and that they are appropriately supported in doing so. To do this, the ESOS framework requires higher education providers to meet a range of obligations. In particular, it ensures that all registered providers, including universities, continue to make certain support services available to overseas students. These services are required under the Education Services for Overseas Students Act National Code of Practice for Registration Authorities and Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students—the national code. This includes appropriate arrangements for independent grievance handling and dispute resolution, and access to information on counselling services, orientation, academic progress, further study and accommodation.

It is a longstanding policy of the Australian government that non-Australian government funding, tuition fees or student contributions paid by Australian students should be used to subsidise the tuition or services provided to overseas students. The government is determined to maintain this policy and, as such, it is necessary to ensure the privacy of charging overseas students for the services defined in the national code. The amendment allows a provider to include an amount in its tuition fee, but not a separate fee, to cover the national code requirements. This, however, is not a new policy but one that reinforces current requirements to ensure that overseas students receive quality protection—one of the major attractions for overseas students coming to Australia, in fact.

The amendment does not place an additional legislative financial requirement upon educational providers, including universities. I urge you to support this legislation, and I commend this bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.