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Monday, 19 October 2009
Page: 10055

Mr PERRETT (12:17 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009. In recent years we have seen a growing number of students from overseas enrolling in our wonderful Australian universities. Australia is home to more than 300,000 overseas students: 70,000 from China, 60,000 from India and increasing numbers from Scandinavia, Canada, the US, Britain and other European countries. Closer to home we have many students from South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. In fact, despite the global financial crisis, overseas enrolments ballooned by 21 per cent this year.

It is a vote of confidence in Australian universities and proof that an Australian degree is highly regarded around the world. Universities like Griffith University, in my electorate, the Queensland University of Technology, where I did my teaching and law degrees, and the University of Queensland, where I did my literature studies, have world standard names because Australia is a very, very attractive place to study. We have great people, an intriguing and engaging landscape, a great climate—at least in Queensland—and a very welcoming, multicultural society. Young people want to come to Australia, want to be educated in Australia and want to experience Australian culture. Overseas students and their families spend more than $14 billion a year in Australia. Access Economics estimates that this creates an extra $12.6 billion in goods, services and jobs. That means overseas students contribute more than $26 billion to our economy—making education our third biggest export. But, of course, their contribution is not just financial.

It is interesting when we think about students in purely financial terms. Certainly, in Queensland, when comparing what overseas students are worth, we could look at them in financial terms as a coal train. If we thought about students as a coal train, there would be about two students per wagon. If we were to think of those 300,000 students as coal wagons, there would be 132,075 wagons, or a train nearly 2,000 kilometres long, stretching from Brisbane to Sydney and back.

However, as I said, we do not need to think of them in merely financial terms as they contribute to and do other things for our community. Overseas students contribute to the broad tapestry of Australian multiculturalism and they also ensure a diversity of thought in our universities and in our broader community. They also do some of our less desirable jobs, such as late night taxi-driving shifts, which are not always the top jobs as you do not always see humanity at its finest. Griffith University’s Nathan Campus in my electorate is home to 3,700 international students and the community on the south side is richer and stronger for having them. In fact, many of those students attended the south side summit that I held in August.

Unfortunately the downside to such rapid growth in the overseas student sector is that it has allowed an unscrupulous few to subvert the system. We have seen a situation where some education agents exist only to provide a back door for students to gain residency. And, unfortunately, some of the students who come to Australia to learn and to take advantage of our universities are also taken advantage of. I saw an article in the Australian the other day about a house in my electorate which had 37 students living in it. I thought that that would have been the Australian record but apparently there was a Melbourne house that had even more students, which is quite an enviable record and one that I do not wish to break. There is increasing concern about the quality of advice that education agents are providing to prospective international students as well.

The Education Services for Overseas Students Act works in tandem with immigration laws to ensure that education providers collect and report information relating to student visas and to regulate minimum standards, tuition and financial assurance. It is about ensuring that international students receive a quality education in Australia and, on the flip side, that international students meet the conditions of their student visa. This has been a concern passed on to me by some of my constituents. They want to be sure that these international students are doing the right thing. Unfortunately, there is the occasional rogue, but most of them are just hardworking students studying and doing the right thing. I did hear a funny story on the weekend from one of the local councillors in my electorate who, strangely enough, found that an illegal brothel had opened across the road from him. The brothel was run by an international student. I am not sure whether they were a business student or not. I recognise their acumen, but that is not the sort of international student we are trying to attract. Needless to say, the councillor got the brothel closed down pretty quickly.

If Australia is to maintain its reputation as a quality education provider, we need to ensure that international students are offered the best possible education in their chosen degree or trade. This bill will ensure that only genuine education providers with a track record of providing quality education to domestic students will then be allowed to provide education to overseas students. The bill amends the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 to require all institutions on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students to re-register by 31 December 2010. So there is ample time and ample warning. To gain registration, providers will need to demonstrate that their principal purpose is to provide education.

The bill also tightens the screws on education agents by requiring providers to publish the names of education agents who represent them and to meet regulations concerning their agents. This bill is about ensuring that only genuine education providers can provide education to overseas students. As I said earlier, they are a very valuable resource and must be protected. We have seen how just a couple of idiots on a train can damage our good name overseas. We unfortunately saw that happen in India. All of that great work done by our universities to attract and engage students can be knocked away very quickly by a couple of drunken idiots attacking a couple of overseas students. We need to do what we can to protect our brand. It is a great brand and we must do all that we can to protect it.

As with any growth industry there are always a few cowboy operators who are only in it for the quick buck. The bill that is before the House lets them know that there is a new sheriff in town. This bill will put an end to such behaviour. It does so by introducing enforcement measures that will encourage compliance while not putting undue pressure on providers. It will give the Commonwealth the flexibility it needs to enforce the law while not putting education providers under financial pressure. As the law stands, a provider under suspension must continue to teach students but is not permitted to collect fees.

Importantly, our reforms to education services for overseas students will not end with this bill. The review of this legislation will examine how the current arrangements support students, deliver quality education, are effectively regulated and ensure the sustainability of the sector. I understand the Baird review will report early next year and show us other initiatives that we can bring in to improve this sector.

My electorate office is surrounded by overseas students and the agents who initially lure them to Australia, so I well understand how important overseas students are for my community and for the local businesses that service them. I mentioned Griffith University in particular, but a lot of students live in my electorate—because of the ease of life and great food—and then travel to the other universities, such as the University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology. So I understand how important it is that we look after these numbers. As I said, we should think of it as a coal train—I could not easily find a wheat train comparison. I know the number of coal trains that it would take to bring in the sort of revenue that these overseas students do.

Through this bill, the Rudd government is responding to community concerns to ensure that Australia continues to stand tall as a destination of choice for overseas students. We know that our near neighbours are doing what they can to set up universities. They are doing what they can to make sure that they are in competition with us, so it is important that we protect the great brand of Australian universities. The bill before the House goes some way to doing this, and I commend the bill to the House.