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Thursday, 18 August 2011
Page: 8567


Mr BALDWIN (Paterson) (12:26): I rise today to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students (Registration Charges) Amendment Bill 2011 and the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Registration Charges Consequentials) Bill 2011. These bills have come about through a process that was first considered by the Bradley review. A report into overseas education conducted by the Hon. Bruce Baird—and I have to say that it was a substantial report provided to the parliament—highlighted issues that need to be addressed. These bills, in part, go a way towards addressing those issues.

This legislation will create a new fee structure for higher education providers who want to be registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students, the CRICOS. Registration of the CRICOS allows higher education providers to offer courses to overseas students. This would occur through amendments to the Education Services for Overseas Students (Registration Charges) Act 1997. The charges are a result of the review entitled Stronger, simpler, smarter ESOS:supporting international students, which has become known as the ESOS review.

A new fee structure would be introduced, including a base fee, a compliance history fee, a charge per student enrolment and a charge per registered course. It is designed to cover the administrative costs of the registration process and the supervision requirements associated with it.

This legislation is designed to help ensure that only reputable providers are allowed to offer education services to overseas students and it will provide funding for the regulatory activities. What I just said is the critical issue: it will help to ensure that only reputable providers are allowed to offer education services to overseas students. Currently in Australia we have a $17 billion economy that is based around overseas education. In fact, 430,416—or eight per cent of the visitors aged 15 and older who come to Australia—came for the purposes related to education. That was according to the March quarter edition of International visitors in Australia, published by Tourism Research Australia. t identified that this education group spent a total of 60 million nights in Australia, which is almost one-third of all international visitor nights. On average, each person spent $15,206 during their trip, and that number is growing. That is a massive contribution to our economy, to our retail and accommodation sectors. On top of that, with each overseas student comes families and friends who visit and spend time holidaying in Australia, in both city and regional areas. Overseas students are not limited to the major capital cities; a lot of regional and rural universities and registered training organisations are away from the cities. So the spread of the spend is significant throughout the whole footprint of Australia.

That same report showed that 24 per cent—almost one-quarter of international visitors to Australia—arrive to visit friends and family. To give you an idea, in one of the reports, the number of student visa applications granted in 2010-11, to 30 June 2011, by citizen by country, shows that at 19 per cent we had 54,541 granted applications to citizens of the People's Republic of China. Unfortunately that has diminished by 8.6 per cent. In India, our second-largest market, there were 29,826 approved visas, making up 11.6 per cent of the market. Again, that softened by 2.9 per cent.

What concerns me are countries like South Korea and Brazil, where we have seen a softening of some 19.5 per cent and 14.5 per cent. In Thailand we have seen a softening of 21 per cent. Some of the smaller countries have seen an increase—for example, 45.4 per cent in Nepal. We had just over 9,000 applications approved last year from the United States of America, and we saw a softening there of 4.9 per cent. Student visas were granted for 270,499 applications. That number is down 7.4 per cent on the previous year.

I know that certain aspects of this are in relation to the strengthening of the Australian dollar, but it concerns me, and it is highlighted in the report by Bruce Baird, that there are concerns raised in some sectors about the quality of the education that is being provided. In April and May 2009 and also in a newspaper article in April this year, there were concerns expressed about the safety and security of overseas students. In particular, in the Australian on 16 June 2009, an article by Kumar Parakala from ACS highlighted the point that there needed to be greater safety for international students, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne where they had been singled out for robbery and violence. As one of the articles on 29 May 2009 in the Sydney Morning Herald by Arjun Ramachandran reported: 'There is a name for these racist attacks—curry bashing'. I remember well, as everyone in this House will, the outrage that occurred not only here in Australia but also particularly in India about Indian students being singled out for attack. And it is not just in Sydney and Melbourne. There was an article on 16 May 2009—so around the same time—by Dan Proudman in the Newcastle Herald that talked about Korean students, in my own area of the Hunter, attending Newcastle University having also been singled out for attack.

We need to put an end to the situation where people looking at making an investment in Australia—and it is substantial investment—by attending university or higher education or vocational training, feel that they are not secure in this country and feel they are not getting value for money. This was clearly highlighted in the report by Bruce Baird. He said:

… I spoke to nearly 200 students and education providers from the tertiary, school and English-language sectors and other stakeholders at consultation forums. I also met with provider and student peak bodies, regulators, state and territory government officials, embassies, education industry bodies and Members of Parliament. The review received around 150 formal submissions and more than 300 people registered with the online discussion forum. I have also considered recommendations from the International Student Roundtable held in September 2009.

He also said in the report:

Concerns raised during consultations included reports of: false and misleading information provided by some education agents, poor quality education and training, gross over-enrolments, lack of appropriate education facilities, providers paying exorbitant commissions to education agents, limited financial scrutiny of providers, ineffective application and enforcement of regulation, low English language entry requirements, poor social inclusion of students in their institutions and the broader community, inadequate complaints and dispute handling services and some duplication between Commonwealth and states and territories leading to confusion and unnecessary regulatory burden.

These are the things that will directly affect the bottom line of Australia's ability to continue to attract students, particularly considering the extra strong push by US and European education facilities into the Chinese and Indian markets. We need to do what we can to protect those markets and we need to ensure that we deliver a quality education at an affordable price. s I said, the amount of money brought into our economy by this sector is $17 billion and it needs to be secured. Already we have seen a softening in the numbers. As I said, there has been a 7½ per cent decrease in the number of student visas granted. Hopefully the implementation of this legislation will see a strengthening in the process and we will weed out those that are more focused on the money than the educational outcomes for their students. It is critically important that we do that. As I have said, it is not just the education and the dollars; the spin-off effect is value-add to the tourism market. The economic benefit is not just while these people are here studying; it is when they go back to their country of origin and start to talk about the great experience they had in Australia. Indeed, they themselves may end up returning to Australia as tourism visitors. So it is critically important that we do not allow anything to stand in the way of the quality of education or indeed the safety and security for international students.

The report highlighted the number of education facilities that have failed. It said that 21 providers closed between January 2008 and September 2009, and only five of those were able to meet their obligations to reimburse students. So 16 facilities shut down and took the money, without any recourse for their students to recover their money. That does not do a great deal for Australia's reputation. In fact, it soils it quite badly and even affects those quality education providers that do everything they can to make sure that people are accommodated and get a quality education. They suffer the bad reputation that comes from charlatans like this in the industry who set up a get-rich-quick scheme and then shut down with little care and no responsibility.

The report that led to this legislation being brought forward is very long and detailed and unfortunately I do not have the time to cover in detail all of the aspects of it, other than to say that this industry needs absolute transparency in what it is doing so that those who are making this investment decision have a clear understanding of what will be desired. The ESOS Act is only one part of the equation. There needs to be greater cooperation between state and federal agencies to make sure that we can bring about the further benefits that were raised, such as opportunities for trade, increased tourism, diplomacy and government relations, productivity and social inclusion. These need to be addressed as broader issues.

Finally, the aim of this legislation is to ensure that only courses and providers registered with the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students may offer and provide courses to students on student visas and to ensure that international students in Australia receive the education and training for which they have paid—thereby protecting the reputation and integrity of Australia's education and training export industry and strengthening public confidence in the integrity of the student visa program. If these goals and ideals and the aims of the legislation are achieved, then we will move towards increasing the overseas student numbers in Australia and not see them softening as we have in the past year. I commend these bills to the House.