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Monday, 3 March 1997
Page: 1132

Senator CARR(8.00 p.m.) —Is the minister coming?

Senator O'Chee —Keep going, Senator.

Senator CARR —Senator O'Chee, I would not, if I were you, pursue that line. The opposition has considered the issues in relation to the Education Services for Overseas Students (Registration Charges) Bill and associated legislation. Given that since 1995 almost 81,000 overseas students have studied in Australia, some 15.6 per cent more than a year earlier, quite clearly the measures undertaken in this bill are important to Australia's international reputation and protection of the integrity of its overseas educational programs. The international student education industry brings a net benefit to the Australian economy of some $600 million annually. We believe it is likely to grow.

Legislation to ensure the financial and quality assurance of the provision of education to overseas students was first introduced in 1991 in the form of the Education Services for Overseas Students (Registration of Providers and Financial Regulation) Act, the ESOS Act. This follows the development and concerns in the late 1980s about the credibility of much that was then on offer from the non-formal parts of Australia's education and training system; that is, not including the universities, schools or the TAFE colleges but essentially other providers. Some major concerns emerged as to the financial viability and the quality of courses offered by many of these institutions.

A framework was established whereby the states and territories were responsible for primary accreditation of institutions and courses while the Commonwealth maintained a register of providers and their courses. It required non-exempt providers to operate trust accounts for prepaid course fees; to submit to the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, as it then was, an annual return relating to the operation of these trust accounts; and to be members of a tuition assurance scheme. There seems no doubt that these arrangements have contributed significantly to the stability in the industry in the period since their introduction and have been a major factor in the growth of the industry during that time.

In view of the fact that the ESOS Act was due to expire at the end of this year, a review of it was undertaken earlier this year by Ernst and Young. In a climate of general deregulation it is interesting to note that the review found no stakeholder in favour of industry self-regulation at this time. Concerns centred on Australia's international reputation in the provision of education services and whether the industry currently had sufficient maturity to self-regulate. In addition, there was a stakeholder agreement that the Commonwealth should continue to have a regulatory role and that regulation entirely by state and territory governments was not desirable.

The sunset clause in the ESOS Act will now take effect from 1 January 1999. Given that there seems to be a genuine agreement about the appropriateness of the current arrangements and that it is vitally important that we ensure that such a very substantial export industry is protected by effective financial and quality safeguards, the opposition believes that it is not unreasonable for the Commonwealth to seek to recoup some of the costs incurred in the process.

The government proposed that a charge be levied on the basis of the number of students enrolled by institutions in the previous year, with the charge amounts ranging from $300 for up to 10 students, increasing to $5,000 for more than 400 students. The charge would apply for all enrolments of people in Australia on student visas.

I know that Senator Margetts had planned to move two amendments to take account of the length of courses as well as the number of enrolments at each institution. This is quite important, given the vast differences in course length—they vary from a period of weeks to years. It was Labor's initiative that encouraged the government to reconsider their approach to these regulations and as a result this has led to a discussion between various parties within the Senate. The way the legislation was previously framed discriminated against the providers of shorter courses many of whom are members of the English Language Intensive Courses to Overseas Students Association.

According to the information supplied by the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, the median course duration of students enrolled at ELICOS institutions in 1995 was 40 weeks. In other words, around half the students were enrolled in courses shorter than 40 weeks. Also according to DEETYA, around 20 per cent of ELICOS enrolments were people doing courses of less than three months duration who could therefore have been eligible for visitor rather than student visas, thus excluding them from the calculation of the provider registration charge.

That means, however, that 80 per cent of enrolments were not eligible for such exclusion, yet many were still doing relatively short courses. To take account of this and to try to treat such providers on an equitable basis with other providers such as universities, we are pleased to note that the government listened to the concerns put forward by the opposition parties and has sought to amend its bill in a way which counts people doing courses of less than 26 weeks as half an enrolment for the purpose of the charge, with students in longer courses counting as one enrolment. We will therefore be supporting this amendment. I note that the minister has yet to arrive.

Senator O'Chee —The minister is here.

Senator CARR —Where is the minister?

Senator Minchin —Here.

Senator O'Chee —He is the minister on duty.

Senator CARR —You are the minister on duty, are you? I understand that Senator Vanstone has coverage of this bill. So, Senator Minchin, you have coverage of this bill, do you?

Senator O'Chee —You cannot pick and choose. This is not a smorgasbord.

Senator CARR —The opposition will be supporting the amendments, but it would be easier for this bill to proceed if the minister who had coverage of this bill was in fact present.