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Wednesday, 8 November 2000
Page: 22481

Mr BAIRD (6:48 PM) —I rise in support of the Education Services for Overseas Students Bill 2000. This is an important piece of legislation. I have listened to the concerns of the member for Dobell. It is very interesting that one shadow minister is complaining that there has been a lack of consultation, yet it is only 24 hours since I was in this chamber with another shadow minister who managed to announce amendments that the Labor Party wanted to move to a piece of legislation while the coalition was having their party room meeting—which did not make it possible to consider those amendments before the bill came into the House. Such hypocrisy is not unnoted. If you want a consistent approach, I think we should start to look at some of the antics that were used during the discussion on the privacy bill. Nevertheless, I am very happy to hear that the member for Dobell supports this legislation. Of course, it is an old device, when one actually thinks a piece of legislation is good, to say, `We support it, but we think it has taken quite a while to produce.' I hear what he is saying. It is a good piece of legislation. I also suggest to the shadow minister that, in 13 long years of Labor, lots of overseas students came to Australia without such an effective piece of legislation in order to control the numbers of students, their behaviour and the conditions under which they came here.

As he rightly points out, and as the second reading amendment indicates, this is a very important sector of the Australian economy. If we look at the overall value of this industry to the Australian economy, we see it is now worth some $3.018 billion, which is just huge in terms of the Australian economy. As a growing and very significant sector of the economy, its role needs to be recognised in improving and increasing the balance of payments for Australia. In the same way as tourism grew from very small beginnings—if we go back to 1975, we had half a million international visitors and we now have close to four million international visitors—we are seeing the same trend here in the number of international students who are coming to Australia. In 1996, there were 53,188 who came to Australia. By the year 2000, it had reached 95,540. That is a very significant increase. The encouragement assistance and incentives by this government have obviously been beneficial. I pay tribute to the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs and his role in being out there and encouraging the various tertiary institutions in this country to take more international students. The figure for the year 2000 includes 53,456 commencing students, which is up from just 28,000 in 1996.

Importantly, while this improvement has been going on, there has actually been a decline in the level of unmet demand for Australian students. It is 5.6 per cent lower than the 1997 figure. So there has been a big increase and there have been big returns to the Australian economy. As has been mentioned by other members, this issue is not only about pure economics but about leaders of neighbouring countries having come down to Australia to receive an education, having gained an understanding of the Australian way of life and having gained respect for our institutions and for the level of education that is provided. I think that is one of the absolute pluses of this. Seeing the shadow minister, the member for Reid, at the table and you, Madam Deputy Speaker Crosio, in the chair, I am reminded of our days in the New South Wales parliament. If I had to pick the Olympic member who supported Sydney's bid the most, I would have to choose the IOC member from Thailand, who provided us with constant information and who talked up the bid. The reason why he was so supportive was that his years as a student in Sydney gave him a great admiration for the Australian way of life. This is one example of where it obviously had ramifications for Australia. I have met a number of people in key areas with the same experience. During my years on the Tourism Council, I met one of the leaders of an international hotel chain who was visiting Australia. He gave as one of the reasons why he wanted to invest in Australia his very positive experience as a student in Australia. Those are two small examples but they nevertheless hold a lot of significance for Australia as we know it and for the Australian economy.

Cultural exchange is important. It is important to see some of our near neighbours come to Australia as students. By far and away the biggest proportion of students comes from our regional neighbours. Around 85 per cent come from Asia, the top five countries being Indonesia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. It is all-important in terms of our regional relationships to be encouraging students from these areas. The college that I am familiar with is the tourism college in Manly, which used to be the old St Patrick's College. It has been operating for only a couple of years, but 60 per cent of its students are international students and they come from all over the world. Upon graduation, they go into the hotel industry right around the world. The emerging industry of tourism in this country is an amazing development for Australia, and it is seen in the establishment of the college and the incredible support it has from international students.

The package of bills replaces the original Education Services for Overseas Students (Registration of Providers and Financial Regulation) Act 1991. The original act was drafted to protect Australia's reputation in a growing industry by requesting education providers to register on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students. It also attempted to provide cover for international students in case the provider failed financially. I give credit to the previous government for establishing this act. The original act worked in tandem with state and territory legislation and industry-level codes of practice. However, there were concerns about the effectiveness of the original legislation. It was originally subject to a sunset clause, which was due to come into operation in January 1994, but this was subsequently extended a number of times as the various legislators looked at how the effectiveness of the legislation could be improved.

There were two Senate inquiries, and the industry itself has expressed concern about a number of weaknesses in the act. These include, firstly, the fact that the existing arrangements fail to protect student fees against the risk of collapse of the education provider. We have seen some examples of that, particularly in the English education area. Secondly, a large number of students were overstaying in Australia or were working in contravention of their visa conditions. Quite often, we observed that enrolment in college courses was aimed at avoiding the normal migration requirements and overstaying visa conditions. The Commonwealth simply did not have adequate powers to police or enforce the provisions of the act. So all of these concerns have led the government to bring these bills before the parliament to ensure that Australia continues as a very attractive destination for international students, with consequent benefits flowing to the economy, as has been outlined previously.

The purposes of the bills are as follows. The principal bill, the Education Services for Overseas Students Bill 2000, contains the crucial legislative changes. The Education Services for Overseas Students (Assurance Fund Contributions) Bill 2000 separates the requirement to pay contributions and special levies from the principal bill. This is done because there is a chance that these fees could be classified as taxes. Under the Constitution, any tax must be considered under a separate bill, so that has been separated out for that reason. The Education Services for Overseas Students (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2000 repeals the original 1991 act and provides for transitional matters in the transfer of the new legislation. The legislation also amends the Migration Act to permit cooperation between the relevant government agencies and the states. The legislation further updates the initial and annual charges education providers must pay to be registered and provides for these charges to be linked to the CPI. Finally, it amends the Migration Act to provide for automatic visa appeal and cancellation where students have clearly abused the privileges given to them under their student visa. The legislation also allows ministerial discretion to reinstate the visa if it is found that this was done on a faulty basis.

The key aspects of the legislation include the establishment of a national code. The bill provides for the establishment of a national code so that education providers can clearly understand what is expected of them in providing education for international students. This code will primarily be the responsibility of the states and territories, but it is obviously in the national interest to have a single code, and that is why it is in this legislation. The code will set out the values and standards that education providers must meet to be allowed to offer their services. The government's proposed amendments to the legislation accede to industry's requests that it be included in the drawing up of this document, alongside state and territory governments.

In relation to registration, the legislation also requires that all providers of education services to overseas students must be registered. The legislation maintains the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students. The register will be on the public record, and organisations will have to satisfy a number of conditions in order to be registered. These include a condition under the original act that the provider not have been convicted of an offence for at least five years. The provider must also be registered in Australia, be certified as complying with the national code and must have started paying annual amounts to the assurance fund, which is outlined further in the bill.

The bill will make it an offence for unregistered entities to offer services as education providers to overseas students, with a maximum penalty of six months jail for breaches of this particular act. I think that is appropriate. Providers must also satisfy the secretary of the registry that they will not be engaging in deceptive practices, either in the provision of education or in relation to student visa conditions. Those operators who would go out and market it as a way to circumvent Australia's visa requirements will be sadly disappointed, because this bill provides for appropriate penalties for those who use it for those means or who do not provide the appropriate level of educational standards. Some of these substandard providers have led overseas consumers to believe they are being offered a quality product when clearly they are not, and we have seen some public examples of that in the media.

The next aspect is the assurance fund. This fund is provided so that students who come to Australia have the assurance that if their training institution collapses—and at the moment they have no recourse for the fees they have paid out—they can be compensated. Funds will be provided from fees, late fees or any other application of fees determined by the registrar and will be automatically deducted from those education providers who are registered. These funds will go into a central fund. In the case of an education institution becoming bankrupt for some reason or other and no longer being able to provide the service, this fund will be used to compensate those who have paid out fees and who suddenly find themselves without an educational provider, upon determination by the registrar. A legal avenue of appeal for providers who would like a special levy or sanction decision to be reviewed is also established by the legislation to ensure that the provision is not abused.

Turning to the migration changes, we have already discussed questions of deception on behalf of some of the education providers who offer courses as a cover for people to illegally work in Australia. Some providers also provide courses and tolerate the fact that students are working more hours than they attend college, which is obviously to the detriment of the course they are undertaking. So, for the first time, the legislation sets up the ability to track students. In the past, students arrived and there was no further checking that they were enrolled in the course they said they were enrolled in, how long they stayed, whether they overstayed their visa, et cetera. A tracking process is proposed under this legislation. From the time students arrive, where they are enrolled, how long they stay in their course and what work they are undertaking will be tracked so as to prevent the abuses of the system that we have seen in the past. It is proposed that the education offices will use encryption and other devices, working with the department of immigration, to ensure that they protect the privacy of individuals involved and also ensure the safeguarding of Australia's migration requirements.

In conclusion I would like to say, as the member for Cook and on behalf of the government, that this is an outstanding bill. It does recognise the important contribution of this emerging and important industry. It is an industry that provides $3 billion to the Australian economy. I can think of some traditional industries in Australia today whose income would not reach $3 billion. It is an emerging industry. It is part of the services sector, which is so significant. For some time we as a parliament have been looking at the traditional industries, but here is a clear example of an emerging and significant industry that produces $3 billion in foreign exchange earnings. It brings students out to Australia. It offers significant tourism potential as parents, relatives and friends are invited down by the students as part of their stay in Australia; and it creates ambassadors for Australia who go back to their own countries and, because of the professional level at which they become involved in the affairs of their own countries—and many of them will become leaders—when looking for economic ties, political ties or defence arrangements with this country, they will be able to make a positive affirmation of the nature of our country and all the wonderful attributes that we in Australia recognise and value.

We had the Colombo Plan many years ago, and that had some very significant benefits. But this legislation ensures that, under the new regime, when we have tertiary institutions in the marketplace looking for students on a global basis, they will have the protection that is necessary. While some of them may say that that adds to the cost at the bottom line, it does provide an assurance to those who come to Australia that, if they enrol in courses, they do have protection in terms of the fees they are paying if the course is no longer offered. It also cuts out some of the deceptive practices offered by some of the smaller colleges that avoid the migration requirements. As part of the amending legislation, we find changes to the Migration Act. It sets out a national register for those institutions that want to take international students and an agreement on the standards they must uphold in the courses offered, in the advice to students and in ensuring they are not using it as a means to avoid migration requirements. It is a very sensible approach.

The legislation brings international educational services to a professional level. It brings them to a level equal to that experienced in many other Western countries. I think it is a significant step forward. I commend the minister for introducing the bill to the House. The bill has had an interesting progress. The original bill was initiated in 1991 but, of course, some of the provisions, once tested, were found to be deficient. This will tighten up the requirements. It will ensure that those who wish to come to Australia to study in our institutions can be assured of the quality of the education and that there will be continuing courses, because of the underlying guarantees that are given. I think it is an appropriate piece of legislation, and I commend it to the House.