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Monday, 19 October 2009
Page: 10057


Dr STONE (12:27 PM) —I rise with pleasure to talk on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009. In a previous life, before entering parliament, I was a manager for international development at the University of Melbourne. Much of my time was spent talking with parents and institutions offshore and looking at what opportunities there were at Melbourne university for overseas students to study medicine, law or commerce. I have to say that our university sector has, very deservedly, an extraordinarily good reputation for offering excellent education to overseas as well as domestic students.

A problem has come about because we have had a huge blossoming of the vocational education and training sector, which too often has been a visa factory with the objective being that students come to Australia and study for as short a time as possible before being able to apply for permanent residency—with all of the rights that come with permanent residency—leading to migration. We have seen in recent times, very sadly, that perverting of the educational objectives of international education in order for it to lead to migration. The outcomes have been exploitation and disappointed students finding very poor courses. There has been the debacle of students trying to live on very little after coming to Australia with very poor financial backing and with the expectation that they will be able to work quite easily in the Australian economy while they put themselves through a year or so of training.

Of course, as a coalition we very much support any measures that will restore the integrity and reputation of the Australian educational offerings, from the tertiary sector down to the VET sector, but we are concerned that while this bill has honourable objectives—that is, to have a much more rigorous registration of providers and to require agents to more fully account for themselves and have their bona fides on record—we do not think it goes far enough and, as has been foreshadowed, amendments will be proposed.

We are also concerned that the international students are being left very much in the lurch when it comes to fully understanding what changes the Labor government has made to the prerequisites for permanent residency. These international students have already come to Australia and have often paid very substantial fees and other costs in the expectation that what they are doing under the MODL course process will end with their gaining permanent residency. There are over 225,000 students who have come to Australia to do courses like hairdressing, cooking, community welfare studies and the like. They have gone to colleges which did not expect them to do more than about a year of study but with 900 hours of work experience. They were right when they came here in understanding that such a course of action and a certain level of English language facility would pretty assuredly lead them into a permanent residency outcome. Now the rules have changed and, using a Critical Skills List rather than the Migration Occupations in Demand List, the same number of points is not going to be allocated for permanent residency or migration for courses undertaken like cooking and hairdressing.

The difficulty is that, like the youth allowance debacle that is currently raging across Australia, the rules were changed midway. In the case of independent youth allowance, we have thousands of stranded Australian rural and regional students who will now not be able to access Australian university education. In this case we have got tens of thousands of international students who were complying with the criteria the day they came to Australia and who are frustrated by changes to what they thought they were buying. They are finding out about those changed rules on the grapevine; hence, we are seeing these public expressions of frustration and distress. I am absolutely understanding of those expressions. We really do need to have much more transparency about what the new rules and conditions are for those students who come here to study, particularly in the vocational education and training stream. We need to make sure that the offshore agents understand the new rules that will now be put in place in relation to the Critical Skills List being the key referent for permanent residency rather than the old Migration Occupations in Demand List. I am meeting students who are coming to Australia and still being misinformed by the agents back in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and similar places.

There is in this bill an intention to improve things, but what is being offered is simply that agents should undertake online accreditation or, failing that, the education agent should be a member of a recognised professional body in the countries in which they are working. This is still very open to abuse and misuse in countries where there is not sufficient supervision from the Australian High Commission or our embassies. We still cannot expect that all education agents in these offshore countries are going to be saying the right thing to their students if there is not a requirement that the student presents themselves in person to an Australian official from either DIAC or DEEWR. At the moment there is no requirement that the student has to be personally examined about their IELTS or English language facility. That can be done at arm’s length and we know about the scams that exist there. There is still not a proper requirement for adequate numbers of dollars to be lodged for students to ensure that they do not immediately become vulnerable to exploitation in the job market when they land in Australia. There could be exploration of a trust where the student’s living requirements in terms of funding, including their fees, are placed so that there is not this desperate need to go and work for $2 or $3 an hour in a 7-Eleven at two o’clock in the morning where they become very vulnerable as they stand on a station, say at Noble Park, to criminals that may attack them at that hour of the night.

This bill does not even begin to touch the surface of the problems that currently exist. I have great sympathy for those students who have come to Australia, perhaps from places like the Punjab in India, whose parents have borrowed and put every cent of the family’s spare cash plus more into their obtaining a migration outcome from the course that they are to attend in somewhere like Flinders Lane in Melbourne. The expectation is that the student, having obtained permanent residency, will become the pull-through for the family’s migration to Australia. With the rules changed part-way through, you can imagine the extraordinary pressure, the stress, the shame and the loss of face for that young person who knows that so much was invested in them personally to be the salvation for their family back home, a family that could not have expected to migrate under any other of our Australian rules and regulations.

This is a very difficult and ongoing problem. This bill aims to do better, but it does not do enough. I am afraid we already have scams jumping up in Australia which take advantage of courses that are listed on the Critical Skills List as alternatives to what used to be on the MODL—the list of reference for permanent residency. For example, I have been told that in Adelaide there are already colleges or registered training organisations jumping up that are processing lots of international students in a factory-like way to go into the aged-care sector. Similarly, there is great concern that there are numbers of international students who will become automotive engineers now being churned through quite questionable study centres.

Where is the vigilance of this government? In closing down, for example, colleges of hairdressing and cooking which hardly had any equipment and did not have bona fide or well-qualified chefs and other trainers, the government simply has not watched what else is coming to replace those types of courses. A very tragic situation was reported to me in my electorate recently by a young couple from India, who came to see me about it. The woman was a qualified doctor who had trained and had been practising in India for a number of years as a GP. She had paid a very substantial amount of money to an agent in India for the advice that her best way to migrate to Australia was via her undertaking a community welfare studies course in a very questionable college in Flinders Lane in Melbourne. She came to that college and she brought her husband with her. He does not speak much English but she speaks very good English. That college collapsed and was liquidated. She was then directed to another college. She is now pregnant, with just a few weeks to go before the birth of her baby. She was so badly advised by that agent that she has wasted a fortune in funds and some 12 months of her life. She should, of course, have tried to enter Australia as a qualified general practitioner. As a woman willing to practise in a rural area she could have had a pathway to more legitimate entry. She is not the only person, nor will she be the last, in that situation. There have been thousands of students who have been similarly badly advised.

This government has to understand that, just like with the boat people, where there are enormous pull factors bringing those people down to Australia and risking their lives in the process, there are pull factors in our international student sector which are enticing agents to misrepresent the facts, leading people who cannot expect migration through any other pathway to think they can buy their way into Australia and do poor courses in very poor colleges that damage the reputation of Australia. Simply having those colleges re-register on CRICOS by a certain date is not going to do very much at all to clean up the act of all those in this sector. It is one of our largest export earners, but that fact alone should not be what drives change or better scrutiny in the sector. The fact is that we have a quarter of a million young to middle-aged people thinking they have a chance to have a decent education or, alternatively, a pathway to migration. Too many of them are having the wrong experience in this country because of poor vigilance, poor monitoring of the sector, very poor coordination between the states and the Commonwealth, passing of the buck to and fro, audits not being properly undertaken and no consequences when one college closes and the operatives of that college re-emerge down the road offering the same sorts of courses with the same fee structure.

This is a case of an international student sector which is being very poorly managed. It has put at great risk the reputation of Australia, which is in a highly competitive market in terms of attracting international students. It has made us a laughing stock in countries like New Zealand, Canada and the US, who for years—I am talking about the middle and late 1990s—were in awe of Australia’s capacity to attract good students. Those countries now have the bounty of additional good students going in their direction because of Australia’s failure to properly address an industry sector that is riddled with scams and exploitation and is making a lot of young people’s lives a misery.

We have heard about the hot-bedding of students who have no accommodation option but to live in Third-World standards in rented accommodation. There are students who hardly ever go to their colleges because they know they can get a certificate which will simply tick off that, yes, they have done the required number of hours. All of this continues. We know it continues because, as shadow minister for immigration, I have students coming to me complaining and I have the colleges which do the right thing and which offer excellent education complaining that they are being dragged into the reputation meltdown while they do the very best for their students and offer excellent education.

I call on this government to try a bit harder and to be more realistic when it talks to its state colleagues, its state Labor governments in particular, about their failure to properly audit and properly resource the work that they should be doing. This legislation is obviously an attempt to address some of the issues out there, but it is a pathetic attempt. It still leaves most of the students uninformed about other changes Labor has made. One that I am very concerned about is the recent abolition of the 45-day rule. That rule in the coalition’s time as the government of Australia said that you had to apply for asylum within 45 days of your arrival in this country. I am concerned that with Labor’s abolition of that regulation we are going to see a lot of these students so desperate to deliver what their parents expected—which was a migration pathway as a result of their $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000 investment—that they are going to put their hands up at the end of their cookery or hairdressing course and say, ‘We now seek asylum.’ They will do that knowing that they will have access to the workforce for as long as it takes this Labor government to work through their vexatious claim and to work through all of the reviews if that claim is rejected. That will give them some further time to hope that the rules are changed, to perhaps find a partner in Australia, to perhaps somehow slip through between the stools so they do not have to leave this country.

This is all, sadly, another example of an incompetent government that does not make the hard decisions, that ignores the full implications and impacts of what it does legislatively and through regulation change. I have to say that when the coalition were in government we very much understood that there are unscrupulous operators always wanting to take advantage of the vulnerable and that, when it comes to proper regulation, we have to be strong and firm but just. We understood that we cannot simply by stealth, if you like, change the rules without letting the stakeholders know how the rules have been changed without expecting them to arc up and say, ‘What about some transition clauses?’ That is what a lot of these students will be asking for when they discover that they came to Australia under one set of criteria and spent a lot of their families’ cash in trying to achieve an outcome which at the time was legitimate, but now the rules have changed. What is this government going to do with those thousands and thousands of students who will be thwarted in what were legitimate aims and objectives? It is not good enough to simply say: ‘Well, they got it wrong. They can go home and we don’t care.’