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Monday, 19 October 2009
Page: 10070


Mrs MOYLAN (1:22 PM) —It is a privilege to be able to talk in this place to the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009. The treatment of overseas students by Australian education providers has indeed been the subject of intense interest in recent times—probably for all the wrong reasons, unfortunately—and the collapse of a number of private colleges has focused attention on the small minority of unscrupulous providers who risk Australia’s reputation as a world-class education destination. Australia’s education industry is a crucial exporter, bringing $15.4 billion into the country last year, and there has been a staggering growth in overseas demand for education services in Australia. Accordingly, there has also been growth in the number of education providers offering places to overseas students. With such immense growth comes the very real risk of crooked providers only interested in turning a profit in the marketplace, and this is what we have seen in recent times with reports from students showing alarming breaches of the system that is designed to protect them.

What is quite clear is that, while the vast majority of providers are doing the right thing by their students, there are certainly some out there who threaten not only the reputation of one of Australia’s greatest exports but also, and more importantly, the aspirations of many of their students. As anyone in business would tell you, your reputation is your greatest asset—and for Australia’s education industry this is particularly true. It is unfortunate that the dishonest behaviour of some providers has the capacity to undermine the sector as a whole. It threatens to devastate the reputation of Australia as a first-rate destination for overseas students. Not for one minute would I want to portray this in terms of the financial benefits to Australia, because I think there are benefits well beyond the financial ones in making sure that our education system is rigorously protected and that the students entering it are rigorously protected so that they get the kind of education that they want.

This really takes me back to the Colombo Plan, a plan that was well before my time in this place. I want to touch on aspects of that because I think it would help us to recognise that the benefits of overseas students coming to Australia go well beyond financial considerations and indeed well beyond someone just getting a degree. The Colombo Plan has occupied a very prominent place in Australia’s history and Australia’s relationship with Asia. It is best remembered for sponsoring thousands of Asian students to study or train in Australian tertiary institutions. It reached into almost every aspect of foreign policy, from strategic planning and diplomatic initiatives to economic and cultural engagement. It was very much grounded in the faith that improved living standards would foster political stability. You have to understand that this was in the context of post World War II and the rise of communism throughout the Asian region. The foreign minister at the time, Percy Spender, felt that this would be a force for diplomatic aid and so the Colombo Plan was born. It offered a prism through which to examine the changing nature of Australia’s relationship with Asia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Documents in relation to the program reveal Australia’s hope of using the aid program to involve the United States in regional affairs and cultivate diplomatic and commercial relations, so it had many benefits.

While we are not here to talk about the Colombo Plan specifically today, what I want to highlight from the lessons learned from the Colombo Plan is the very important part that having students from other countries in this country gaining an education can play in fostering a greater understanding between cultures and religions and breaking down many of the barriers and prejudices that can sometimes exist through lack of contact. Dr Daniel Oakman has examined in quite close detail the Colombo Plan. I believe his work will be published in a book, presumably soon to be released if it has not already been. A report on his work says:

He explains that most Australians think the Colombo Plan was only an education program under which Asian students came to Australia on scholarships. That was an important part of the plan and it had a profound effect on Australia, but it did involve a lot of other activities.

Between 1950 and the 1980s about 20,000 Colombo Plan students came to Australia.

… during the 1950s privately funded Asian students outnumbered Colombo Plan students by about five to one,’ Oakman says.

Maybe it could be argued the Colombo Plan was the forerunner to students from Asia feeling comfortable about coming into Australia, although I am not sure about that; but Dr Oakman says:

‘The impact of the Colombo Plan was greatly magnified because when any Australian saw an Asian student they assumed that the student was funded under the Colombo Plan … The Colombo Plan had a momentum that the Government had not banked on. Many of the privately funded students came because of word-of-mouth and good things that they had heard from earlier Colombo Plan students. The returning Colombo Plan students acted as a sort of advertisement that Australia was a good place to come to for education. It was cheaper for them to come here than to go to the United Kingdom or America—

the United States—

and Australian education institutions had a good reputation.’

These are the kinds of reports that we would like our overseas students to be going back with today. Perhaps it might be instructive for those engaged in providing education to overseas students today to examine some of the elements of the Colombo Plan and its success. I will go on to quote more from a report about him:

Oakman says those students in Australia turned on their head the stereotypical assumptions upon which the Colombo Plan had been based.

‘The Asians who were coming to Australia did not conform to that 1950s stereotypical view that they—

Australians—

previously had of Asians,’ he said. ‘The students could speak acceptable English. They came from middle-class backgrounds. Eventually their academic performance exceeded that of Australians. This would have been quite confronting. These were not rabid communists, poor or disease-ridden Asian hordes. In fact they were perfect examples of assimilation because they came into Australia with very few problems of integrating into an Australian society.

I commend Dr Oakman’s paper because it makes very interesting reading and gives pause for reflection on the importance of us engaging and breaking down cultural and religious barriers and gaining greater acceptance. This, of course, goes both ways.

By failing to do the right thing, those few educational institutions who are not giving value for money and not looking after the interests of the students they are attracting from overseas are damaging not just Australia’s capacity to earn a considerable income from the export of education and the future employment opportunities of those young people who come seeking an education; they are doing incredible untold damage to what can be a fantastic opportunity to engage at a cultural level and to bring about more peaceful and harmonious relationships within our communities and those communities that students originate from.

Dr Oakman’s paper also talks quite a bit about how the Colombo plan allowed the Australian officials to get a better grip on how an aid program ought to be structured in the Asian region—because it was a very short-term program. It was failing and in some cases was doing more harm than good. The paper concludes:

On the upside, the Colombo Plan was a great diplomatic icebreaker. One of the few contacts Australia had with some Asian countries was through the Colombo Plan. So there was a connection for diplomats to work with. It was a constant feature of their conversation and diplomacy. It would enhance the level of engagement that was going on. And that built relationships and helped negotiate conflicts.

It is worth driving home to those providers of education who are not doing the right thing their obligations to their country and their obligations to work more rigorously to ensure a good outcome and a good experience for overseas students in this country.

The bill before the House is aimed at protecting Australia’s education reputation. While this is most certainly a worthy intent, there are still a number of ways in which it may be improved. The key aspect of the bill concerns the re-regulation of providers on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students. In order to be re-registered, providers will need to be able to demonstrate that their principal purpose is to provide education, rather than merely make a profit, and that they have the capacity to provide education at a satisfactory standard. These are very important aims and they are very supportable, but it is important to note at this stage that the monitoring of overseas student services is a jurisdiction shared by states and territories and the Commonwealth. The states and territories act as quality control and will be responsible for interpreting and, indeed, applying the requirements. It is hoped but not guaranteed that the requirements will be uniformly defined and applied by the various state and territory authorities. It is worth looking at ways to strengthen that, for all the reasons I have just outlined to the House.

Reading through a number of the submissions to the inquiry by the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee, it is clear that a number of providers are concerned by the lack of a risk-management approach to the re-registration. All education providers to overseas students will need to undertake this re-registration process, regardless of their risk strategy. It is also clear from these submissions that there is a widespread belief that current issues are due predominantly to enforcement—or perhaps the lack of it. The question must be asked: if a universal re-registration process is carried out with no risk management involved, will the authorities have the capacity to carry out this new workload in addition to the already considerable enforcement duties?

The Australian Council for Private Education and Training in its submission to the Senate committee noted:

Appropriate risk management principles need to be incorporated into the Bill and its associated regulations and implementation to ensure that the operation of those institutions with a history of regulatory compliance are not disrupted or disadvantaged by additional regulatory and administrative burden.

This is an important point. We see it in many pieces of legislation, particularly in relation to business. While the majority of businesses, including these education providers, act decently and provide a very high standard of services, unfortunately we have to put in place regulation to deal with those who seek to damage Australia’s reputation by running services that are not in the best interests of students. But we need to be very careful to balance the tension here between an appropriate level of regulation and overburdening those organisations and institutions that demonstrate a track record of doing the right thing. It is thoroughly sensible that the authorities implement a risk-management approach to the re-registration process so that limited resources can best be directed to providers who pose the highest risk, while, as I said, the many respectable providers are not unnecessarily hampered with onerous registration processes. This is necessary to ensure that the authorities can effectively enforce the Education Services for Overseas Students Act and unscrupulous providers are weeded out of the industry as soon as possible. That is definitely a very high priority.

Another key aspect of this bill is the requirement that providers make public the education agents that they use. Education agents are fundamentally important in the international marketing of providers. They wield a massive influence in arranging education for foreign students. But this significant power is open for abuse. Education agents are the face of Australia’s education industry. A false claim by one agent chips away at Australia’s leading reputation and in many instances also places the student under immense emotional and financial strain. Reports from students unfortunately indicate that false claims have frequently been made by some agents, who, presumably working under commission, lure students to Australian providers by misrepresenting the reality.

The Australian Federation of International Students has commented:

Although agents are not (legally) representatives of Australia, however, to international students and their parents, agents are the representative of Australia.

One can understand why that might be so. The federation continues:

The reputation of Australia, is therefore strongly linked to the practices of education agents.

Where education agents are such an integral component of Australia’s education industry and where there have been so many stories of agents abusing this power, more is needed to fix this urgent issue. We need to actively ensure that only the most up-to-date, accurate information is being distributed by agents and that people who do make misleading statements to would-be students are punished.

The only way that we can ensure education agents are dispersing accurate information is to make sure that the agents themselves are trained. I believe that such training should cover an agent’s responsibility under the states’ fair trading legislation and the Trade Practices Act, especially with regard to misleading and deceptive conduct.

It is regrettable that we have witnessed the consequences of unscrupulous education providers and agents and that it has culminated in the closure of a string of private colleges. For those unfortunate students enrolled in these colleges, the measures in this bill will be of little assistance. And it seems that the key safeguard in place for students, the Education Services for Overseas Students Assurance Fund, is in a dire situation. The Australian newspaper reported back in July of this year that the fund’s annual report predicts ‘future bad claims totalling $5.4 million’.

Following the re-registration process, it is entirely foreseeable and indeed desirable that a number of education providers will be forced to close down. For the students enrolled in these institutions, it is unclear if the fund designed to protect their interests will be able to do so. We all hope that the industry will have the capacity to absorb the displaced students efficiently in the interests of the students, the viability of the fund and, may I add, in the interests of Australia’s long-term future as an outstanding education provider. In light of the fund’s present difficulties, it is highly desirable that we seek to introduce new measures to increase transparency and accountability of the fund. The parliament should be informed where a claim is made on the fund.

I, like so many others, have been deeply disappointed by the stories emerging about crooked providers and agents. It is important, though, to not let this minority tarnish the achievements of an industry that continues to serve Australia well in the main. We must act decisively to protect Australia’s reputation in this regard, as we would a threat to any other major export industry.

The intent behind this bill is to do just that. However, considering what is at stake, these measures in some way fall short of the necessary mark and could be strengthened. In an industry where state and territory authorities are already stretched to the extent that enforcement is routinely being compromised, we should seek to have a risk-management approach so that scarce resources are best targeted to where they are needed the most.

In an industry where a small number of agents acting without honesty or integrity threaten our global reputation, we should clearly seek to ensure that only those who are equipped with the right knowledge, and who are aware of the consequences of misleading behaviour, act as agents for our education industry.