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Monday, 19 October 2009
Page: 10061

Mr SYMON (12:45 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009. There are over 547,000 young overseas students in Australia to study at one of our many higher education institutions. They study at our universities, at our vocational colleges and at our English-language schools. There are now some107 public providers and 1,066 private providers servicing the overseas student education industry in the higher education, VET and English-language sectors.

Most people would have seen recent reports in the media exposing a number of institutions and agents that by all accounts appear to have been set up to operate as facilities for international students seeking permanent residency in Australia. Quality of education and results do not seem to be the primary aims of these dodgy agents and institutions, and the student’s interests are placed last in line when profit is the only motive. And it seems that not a month goes by when we do not hear of yet another college closure.

I can only imagine that many international students might feel incredibly daunted when they first arrive in Australia—as many of us do when we go to a country we have never been to before. Not only do they need to concentrate on their forthcoming studies, but they need to find somewhere to live, learn how to navigate the transport system and figure out simple things such as where to buy their food. They may have to find a job to help support themselves and pay college fees. More often than not, they are dealing with a second language. They have to make new friends, build new social support networks and figure out new cultural niceties—let alone having to make sure they are in the right classroom at the right time.

Imagine having that stress compounded by showing up at class and discovering the institution you have enrolled at is not all it advertised to be. We have all heard stories about catering courses in colleges with no kitchens and flight schools with no aeroplanes. Imagine coming to the realisation that you have been duped by the education agent back home, in cahoots with your new school in Australia—a school more interested in taking your money than in offering you the chance to learn new skills.

Like many members of the House, it is my hope that my children will have a holistic experience when they move into higher education—whatever form that education may take. I want them to grow and explore new ideas and new concepts and to build new relationships. I want them to thrive in their new environment. But, most importantly, I want to be sure they are receiving a quality education that is recognised wherever they may go.

It is hard to imagine that the parents of overseas students in Australia do not have the some hopes for their children. While they would be incredibly proud of their child’s achievements and hopeful for what the future might bring, I imagine they might also feel some misgiving. They would want to be sure their child is getting what they signed up for, that the hard-earned money they are using to pay the fees is going to good use and that their child will be safe. I believe that we have an obligation as international citizens and as hosts of these overseas students to ensure that they enjoy the holistic experience that quality higher education brings and that their wellbeing and interests are looked after. We would expect nothing less if our children were studying overseas.

The overseas education sector is our third biggest export, after coal and iron ore, pumping a massive $16.6 billion into our economy in the last year. Growing at a rate above 14 per cent per annum since 2002, this sector is now one of Australia’s great export industries. The overseas education industry is a sector of our economy that remains in good shape despite the global financial crisis. It is absolutely in our economic interests to maintain a strong and viable overseas education sector. If we were to lose the contribution that overseas education makes to our economy, the results would be difficult to deal with.

However, the financial benefits of a strong overseas education industry are not the only benefits. The students we educate help us to build our international relationships and to build new links between nations. They improve our diplomatic networks and our security ties. They open up new opportunities for international business and trade. The Deputy Prime Minister, in her recent opinion piece on this subject in the Sydney Morning Herald, quoted former Monash University Vice-Chancellor Richard Larkins, who pointed out that many senior diplomatic, business and political roles in South-East Asia are filled by graduates of our universities or the parents of those studying here. Indeed, the links and ties we gain from these students are invaluable.

Overseas students make a unique contribution to our society. These young, vibrant people add so much to our multicultural community, giving us the opportunity to gain a greater insight into their heritage and culture. We are richer for that contribution not only in the capital cities but also in the regional towns with nearby universities or VET facilities. In my electorate of Deakin, international students at the Croydon campus of Swinburne University undertake diploma courses in health and human services. However, they are also involved in campus and community life. International students, as part of the Swinburne Student Amenities Association, organise opportunities for students to get to know one another, to learn from each other and to create links with the community. They should be commended for this important work.

And, while I am talking about Swinburne, I would like to mention that the Indian Consul-General in Melbourne, Ms Anita Nayar, attended the recent midyear graduation ceremony of international students. She specifically mentioned the commitment of Swinburne to caring for the wellbeing of students and congratulated them for it. She also reminded students of an old Sanskrit saying: ‘The whole world is one family’. And I think it behoves us to remember that.

For the most part, the education providers that international students enrol at are reputable organisations, like Swinburne, that provide excellent qualifications and look after the welfare of their students. It is unfortunate, however, that this is not always the case. I believe it is imperative that we ensure the strong reputation of the Australian education system overseas is maintained now and well into the future. It is our responsibility to care for the students who arrive to study here and we should highly value the contribution that the international student sector makes to our economy. We also need to ensure the continuing cultural contribution that overseas students make to our communities by encouraging fair and ethical treatment of international students. We need prospective students and their families to know that when they arrive in Australia they will get what they paid for and that they will be treated with respect whilst they are here.

This bill, as the Deputy Prime Minister has already outlined, provides for the re-registration of all institutions currently registered by Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students by 31 December 2010. This will allow the Commonwealth government to ensure that all education providers in the overseas student sector are complying with the regulations set down for them. Importantly, re-registration is intended to restore confidence in the quality of Australia’s international education sector, both here and abroad. Registration of providers not re-registered by the end of 2010 will be cancelled, with the clear message: clean up your act or face closure.

This bill will provide for the publication by each institution of the education agents that represent them and will require providers to comply with regulations concerning their agents. This bill allows for more flexible administration of suspensions of education providers. Members of the House would probably be aware that the Deputy Prime Minister recently held a roundtable with 31 representative international students. They made a number of requests of the government to enhance their safety, wellbeing and education. It is the government’s hope that these discussions will develop a new representative body for overseas students to ensure that their interests are voiced in our community. Our international students should be assured that their voices will be heard by this government.

The communique the students presented to the Deputy Prime Minister in September will be considered in the review of the international student sector currently being conducted by Bruce Baird, the former member for Cook. The government is cracking down on dodgy education providers and the use of disreputable agents that work to recruit students under false pretences. We are working to make sure that international students have a stronger voice in our community. These changes all go towards helping to make sure the Australian overseas education sector remains first class and that our strong reputation overseas is maintained. Deputy Speaker, I commend this bill to the House.