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Wednesday, 8 November 2000
Page: 22477

Mr LEE (6:25 PM) —The first point I would like to make about the Education Services for Overseas Students Bill 2000 and cognate bills is this very simple point: it is about time. The Labor Party has been raising matters to do with problems in international education since the Senate inquiry into the 1998 bill extending the sunset clause of the education services for overseas students legislation—the ESOS Act. Labor's call for a full inquiry into allegations of rorting was not heeded for 12 months and, even then, in August 1999, only a fairly restricted review was initially planned. The minister's media release of 19 August 1999 took a fairly laid-back approach to the issues that we have been raising. The Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs said:

In line with the commitment to constantly monitor the effectiveness of legislation and policy, DETYA is to lead a review to reform elements of the ESOS Act ... I am keen to build on the effectiveness of the regulatory framework.

You can't get more laid back than that. Yet by March this year, in flagging the legislation that is now before the House, the minister had a very different attitude. He said:

The Howard government has released details of a hardline crackdown on providers of education for overseas students who fall below acceptable quality or collude with students to evade immigration regulations.

The minister went on to say that the ESOS Act needed, `significant strengthening'. In the period between the minister's initial announcement of his decision to monitor the effectiveness of legislation and policy and to have his department lead a review and his press release of March, obviously there was a quite dramatic change in the minister's attitude to the legislation. It is my very strong view that this was due largely to the opposition's continued exposure of the rorts and abuses which have been damaging Australia's reputation as an international education provider.

I might use this opportunity to place on record my recognition of the fact that Senator Kim Carr and his staff, and other colleagues in the Senate, have invested a great deal of time and effort in dragging the government to the hurdle, in making sure that Australia does have a stronger and adequate level of regulation for our international education providers. In many cases, when Senator Carr raised these issues in the Australian parliament we had either the government ignoring the issues that were being raised or the minister being dismissive of his calls for tighter regulation to protect Australia's good name. Whatever the case, the issues that Senator Carr and my colleagues and I were raising were not enough to get the minister to move any more quickly than he ever seems to move on any legislation concerning education in this parliament.

Although his March 2000 media release said that these bills would be introduced in the winter sittings, they did not appear until 30 August—well into the spring sittings—continuing the tardiness with which this government has treated the problems in the education export industry. These problems are serious, as the measures taken by the bills attest. While we believe that improvements can be made to the legislation before the House, Labor is pleased that the government, which is happy to crow about the value to Australia of an education export industry, is finally showing some determination to protect the industry's reputation and Australia's future. Australia's fourth largest export industry—that is, our education export industry—has grown rapidly from a small base in the mid-1980s. In 1988 the total number of overseas students studying at Australian institutions was a little over 21,000. This year the figure is 181,656, an increase of more than 850 per cent. As my colleague the member for Denison and I know, in no small measure that is due to the tenacity of the former federal Minister for Employment, Education and Training, John Dawkins, the former member for Fremantle, who in many ways was a great visionary in the potential he saw for Australia expanding its education export industry.

It is understandable, with that massive growth, that the regulatory framework that Australia has had in some ways has had to be continuously upgraded to ensure that we were adequately managing the rapid growth in the sector. What is less understandable is the Howard government's reluctance to take action, in spite of repeated examples of rorts and abuses in the industry, even to the extent of the Howard government not using the powers already contained in the ESOS Act. For example, the act currently says that if a provider defaults—that is, the course does not start or is not offered to completion—then a refund is payable to students. That is what the current act says. The current act also requires the keeping of a trust account. Intentional or reckless contravention of these provisions is an offence punishable by up to 12 months imprisonment. Nevertheless, no prosecutions have been undertaken under the ESOS Act, even though the last 18 months have seen a procession of provider failures, abuse of trust accounts, student visa rorts and obvious illegal activity.

Let me give some examples. Let us start with G-Quest Institute of Advanced Learning. At G-Quest Institute of Advanced Learning, a student reported to the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs that her college, which was on the Commonwealth register commonly known as CRICOS, did not physically exist. At the address of the college there was an empty building. DETYA tracked down the registered provider but, apart from telling the provider it ought to give that student a refund, did not pursue the matter further until hounded into doing so by the opposition. Let me give a second example. National Colleges of Australia collapsed in mid-1999, leaving 700 students unaccounted for. At last report, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs were still looking for 100 of those students. Many of the students were presumably bogus. They could not have fitted into National Colleges of Australia's modest premises in the Sydney central business district. When it collapsed, the college had destroyed its student records, and its proprietor, sadly, had committed suicide. The third example is the Wesley Institute for Language and Commerce. This institute closed in August 2000, leaving 500 students with only partial refunds. This college was owned by Wesley Mission, which leased out the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students, CRICOS, and Registered Training Organisation, RTO, status to some questionable people involved in visa scams. They offered extremely low fees, inadequate premises and a sophisticated system for falsifying attendance records. This leasing-out type of arrangement is not dealt with adequately in these bills, despite the outrageous examples that have been brought to light in recent times. I will have more to say about that later.

The New South Wales government is currently investigating 20 colleges, indicating that the sorts of problems the opposition have detailed are not isolated cases but symptomatic of widespread practices. The opposition's campaign over the last two years has identified dishonest providers in the industry, has identified lack of financial integrity in certain sections of the industry and has identified a lack of protection for students against provider collapse. So we do not hesitate in congratulating the government for acting, but we are very critical of the fact that the government has taken so long to act on this important area of public policy.

I now turn to some of the details of the bills before the House. The Education Services for Overseas Students Bill establishes a tighter regime that deals with many, although not all, of the problems identified by Labor. The main changes to current arrangements are these. Firstly, there is a national assurance fund to replace individual trust accounts. Secondly, there is a legally enforceable national code of practice covering the registration and monitoring of providers. Thirdly, there is an electronic enrolment tracking system better able to detect breaches of student visa conditions. Fourthly, there is a new offence of being a bogus provider. Fifthly, there are new powers for the Commonwealth to investigate and act on apparent breaches of the act or the national code. The assurance fund will replace the notified trust accounts which were required to be kept by individual providers to protect the course fees paid by students. Bank guarantees or insurance policies were considered acceptable alternatives, although problems have become evident with all of these arrangements under the existing legislation. In the case of the Business Institute of Victoria, for example, when it collapsed in April 1999 there were no trust account funds available to compensate students.

On a separate point, the operation of the Business Institute of Victoria in both Melbourne and Vanuatu raises issues about providers who operate across international borders. About 20 students of the Business Institute of Victoria were left stranded in Vanuatu, as were the Australian and other staff who were employed there. Unfortunately, nothing in this package of bills deals with offshore providers, including those providers who operate only on the Internet, whether or not they are based in Australia. These are issues which Labor has been raising and will continue to raise until they are dealt with in an adequate fashion by the government.

The trust account of the Australian Business and Technology Institute was empty when the business collapsed in November 1999, providing another example of the inadequacy of the trust account system, at least as administered by this government. Insurance policies also have been proven to be an ineffective way of protecting students' course fees because of delays in payments. Labor supports the establishment of an assurance fund and its operation as described in this legislation.

I would now like to move to the issue of the national code of practice. Currently there is a voluntary code of practice for the provision of international education and training which was endorsed by the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs in 1994. The proposed new national code is more explicit in the requirements it places on providers, and Labor certainly supports that. We also support the proposed legal sanctions for breaches of the code.

We believe, however, that the national code could be improved in three ways, firstly by strengthening the provisions relating to franchising and licensing arrangements for course provision to bodies other than the CRICOS registered entity. Secondly, we think the national code of practice can be improved by widening the disclosure requirements about previous offences by intending providers. In other words, we believe there should be a genuine fit and proper person test of the sort which I understand is currently applied in the Australian travel industry. Thirdly, we think that the code could be improved by having greater specification of the requirements for maintenance of student records by providers. It is not hard to imagine that some providers will seek to meet the obligations imposed in the new legislation by having computer programs which might automatically record a student as being present unless the program is manually overridden. We think there should be greater supervision and greater scrutiny of student attendance than that.

Let me place on record before the parliament the fact that Labor welcomes the new powers given to the Commonwealth, both to DETYA and to the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. We think these departments should have the power and the authority to enter premises to search, to take photographs, to seize documents and other material and to ask questions subject to the usual safeguards. The power of the states and territories to register institutions as training organisations is a vital factor in the quality assurance task. They have a significant responsibility to ensure that those who seek to go into the education and training business meet the full range of quality criteria both initially and on an ongoing basis. We also believe that the Commonwealth has certain responsibilities in this regard, and we will not allow this federal minister for education to simply pass the buck to his state ministerial colleagues for ensuring that Australia's international reputation in providing high quality education and training to overseas students is upheld and maintained.

In terms of the bills, the coalition has come a long way since it sought the inclusion of a sunset clause in the original ESOS legislation in 1991. The details of the bills will be further explored in the consideration in detail discussion and also I can assure the government that the Labor Party will be using the Senate committee hearings to fully explore many of the issues that will be addressed in the House today and the issues that have been addressed in many of the public comments on this particular industry. In the meantime the Labor Party will be supporting the second reading of the bill. However, I now move a second reading amendment:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“whilst not declining to give the Bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes:

(a) the cultural and economic value to Australia of its $3 billion a year education export industry;

(b) the numerous problems in this industry identified by the Opposition, including dishonest providers, lack of financial integrity in certain sections of the industry, and lack of protection for students against provider collapse;

(c) that this Bill does not adequately address the identified problems; and

(2) condemns the Government for failing to act on these matters for the last two years'.

Having moved that, I will make a few comments about some further amendments of which the government advised my office last night. I was very interested in some comments that were made by the National Party member for Riverina in a debate in this House a few nights ago. She said this about some amendments which the opposition circulated during the debate on the Privacy Amendment (Private Sector) Bill 2000:

However, from the outset, I would like to express my most serious objection at the inappropriate tactics of the opposition in producing late amendments and expecting us—

that is, the government—

to consider them or, indeed, take them seriously. If the opposition were so serious about privacy and about the amendments they are proposing, they would have given us more time to consider them. The fact that adequate care and concern was not paid to this issue by the opposition is so very obvious. Even if the government were mindful to consider some of the proposed amendments, it could not do so in the ridiculously short time provided by the opposition.

What is good for the goose is good for the gander. If the National Party member for Riverina is upset that the opposition amendments on the privacy legislation were circulated only at a time that did not give her party a chance to consider them at its regular Tuesday morning party meeting, we might draw to the attention of the member for Riverina that this piece of legislation, which is being debated on Wednesday, will have amendments moved to it but that the opposition was advised of those amendments only last night.

I do not reflect in any way on the member for Adelaide, who must have a terrible job being the parliamentary secretary to this minister for education. When we contacted the office of the minister for education several days ago and asked whether the government intended to move amendments to the ESOS legislation, we were told that they did not intend to tell the opposition whether there would be any government amendments to this legislation. All I can say to the minister for education is that he should read very carefully or remind himself of Newton's third law of motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The minister for education frequently squibs debates on legislation concerning education: he sends in the member for Adelaide as his parliamentary secretary. In some ways, we do not mind dealing with her: she is a much easier person to deal with on a constructive basis in dealing with education issues. But it is not fair to the member for Adelaide and it is certainly not fair to this parliament that the minister for education treats the parliament in such a shabby manner that, when the opposition ask about government amendments, his office tells us that they have no intention of telling us whether or not they intend to move amendments. If the minister for education wants to play that game, the opposition will be forced to give him minimal notice of amendments that we may be considering in future. That does not help the parliament.

In the past, we have given this Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs several warnings that we will take action if he continued to treat the parliament with contempt. So we will give him one last warning. Whether or not he sends in the member for Adelaide to fill his place because he is not prepared to come into the chamber and debate the second reading amendments, because he is not prepared to come into the chamber to debate with the opposition the detailed amendments in the consideration in detail stage, we simply tell him that there will be an equal and opposite reaction to decisions that he and his office take. For that reason, we look forward to the consideration in detail stage.

The great tragedy is that in many ways the amendments that we were advised of last night do improve this bill, do make the bill easier for the opposition to support and address some of the concerns that we have been raising. Had the government given us advice and notice about its further amendments to this legislation before our party met last Tuesday, then perhaps we might have been able to ensure that the government was able to have its amendments dealt with in a much more thorough and considered manner.

However, the important thing is that Australia's international education export industry earns our country a great deal of money. There are many Australians whose jobs depend on education exports. There are many international students who come to Australia and benefit greatly from being able to study in our country. They also make many friends. As a result of their study in Australia, they take back to their countries a very warm affection for Australia and Australians. That is something whose value longer term is very hard to measure. For all of these reasons, the Labor Party has been raising its concerns about the rorters and the abusers who are active in this industry so that we can work with those who want to chase the cowboys out of this industry.

Some of the providers in the industry would have concerns about the fact that the Labor Party has been exposing the rorters. Some of the strongest advocates of tough regulation against and tough penalties for those who rip off students and do not provide proper standards in this industry are themselves the best providers in the industry. I think that is to the great credit of the overwhelming majority of the providers to overseas students. They know that, to protect their good name, they have to make sure that the shonks are chased out. I am sure that the changes that are made in this legislation will go some way towards addressing the concerns that the opposition has been raising for more than two years now. For these reasons, the opposition will not be opposing the legislation and will be supporting the second reading amendment.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. J.A. Crosio)—Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Laurie Ferguson —I second the amendment.