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Monday, 19 October 2009
Page: 10066

Mr TURNOUR (1:05 PM) —I rise today to support the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009. This piece of legislation is another element of the Rudd government’s commitment to revolutionise education in Australia. The Rudd government is reforming education at all levels. We are improving early childhood education and child-care services, and the measures for this sector include universal access to early childhood education, establishing a new national quality standard and removing TAFE fees for certain child-care courses to encourage further training by those working in the sector and new people into the sector. We are also investing in our primary and secondary schools by building libraries, multipurpose halls and science and language centres. We are ensuring that every Australian school student has access to computer facilities, particularly those who are attending high school. We are supporting the vocational education and training sector through major investments in infrastructure at our TAFEs and assisting our apprentices and trainees by establishing trade training centres across the country. We are making a significant investment through that program in high schools in my electorate, particularly in the construction of a marine skills training centre.

We continue to support our universities, although the Liberals recently voted down the government’s Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2009, which leaves universities with a big funding whole and will mean the demise of important university services such as child care, counselling, health, sport and fitness services. The member for Herbert was speaking highly of James Cook University, as I do. I know that James Cook University is very disappointed by the way the opposition dealt with that legislation. They would certainly like to see those measures passed so that students can get the services they need. I believe international students would benefit from those services as well.

We are a lucky country. We are fortunate that our children can access a good education. A strong education sector has been established in Australia. It is a very important and significant contributor to the nation’s economy. That is why so many students from throughout the world travel to Australia to study—from high school students doing an exchange to university students who spend three or more years and considerable money in our country just so that they can obtain a tertiary qualification from an Australian institution. The education sector is important nationally but also to local communities like mine in Cairns, Tropical North Queensland. A study by Cummings Economics in 2004 found the sector contributed more than $50 million to the local economy and it would have grown significantly since then.

Unemployment in the far north sadly has reached 13.8 per cent, according to the latest ABS statistics, with the tourism and construction industries being hard hit by the global recession. Industries such as the education sector provide another branch of the Cairns economy. It is a sector we need to grow and strengthen into the future, in an effort to diversify our economy and to move away from the boom-bust cycle which we often experience because of our over-reliance on tourism and a speculative construction industry. As Study Cairns—the peak education cluster organisation representing schools, the vocational education and training sector and James Cook University—says, in promoting the region, ‘Come, study in paradise.’ That is certainly the message I am pushing here in Canberra with the Deputy Prime Minister and others as they look to promote Australian education overseas.

This legislation is important in ensuring the we maintain our reputation and standing as a place to get a quality education, for those from overseas who come to this country to study. The education services  for overseas students amendments are an important part of the government’s move to improve the quality and reputation of education in Australia. The bill will amend the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000. This act establishes a regulatory regime for the provision of international education and training services to protect the interests of overseas students through the establishment of minimum standards and providing tuition and financial assurances. It also complements Australia’s migration laws by ensuring providers collect and report information relevant to the administration of the law relating to student visas.

The education sector continues to grow in Australia. In 2008, the international education industry was valued at $15.5 billion. Nearly half a million students come to Australia to study every year, according to Australian Education International. As at June 2009, there were 467,407 enrolments by full-time international students in Australia on a student visa, compared with 204,401 in June 2002. Yet, with the many economic and social advantages and opportunities which this continued growth brings to Australia, there are a few bad apples within the industry that are threatening its future. This bill is about strengthening the framework that protects Australia’s reputation for delivering quality education services.

The government is introducing this legislation in response to growing concern about cases where international students are being taken advantage of. There is an increasing number of reports that some education agents are acting unscrupulously. We have seen the reports of the Indian students in places like Melbourne. Those reports are unfortunate. We need to take steps to ensure that those problems are resolved so that we maintain our quality education sector and the reputation which goes with it.

When over 70 per cent of international students studying in Australia have been placed by an agent, there is a clear need for government to ensure that the appropriate checks and balances for education agents are in place, particularly as the international education industry in Australia continues to grow at such a strong rate. To take no action would be irresponsible. It is important to note that the majority of operators are doing the right thing. They are providing a quality program, support and advice to their students and I am sure will continue to do so well into the future. It is the minority who are not acting in the best interests of students and therefore threaten the future of Australia’s education industry. Whether it be questionable education standards, charging exorbitant fees or immigration rorting—training colleges set up primarily for international students seeking permanent residency through the skilled migration program, a purely profit driven motivation—this is the underbelly of education in Australia. It must be stopped and the shonky operators must be kicked out. That is why we are committed to amendments to the Education Services for Overseas Students Act which will tighten the existing framework, including requiring the reregistration, by 31 December 2010, of all institutions currently on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students to deliver courses of education and training to international students. Should providers fail to reregister by this date, their registration will be cancelled.

We will be going through this reregistration process, ensuring that people are meeting their obligation to international students and are meeting their obligations as quality education providers in this country. We will be introducing two new registration criteria for education providers, which require that the state and territory registration authorities must be satisfied that the provider’s principal purpose is the provision of education and that the provider has demonstrated a capacity to provide education of a satisfactory standard.

These new registration requirements aim to strengthen the education credentials of new providers and existing providers. For Australia to continue to build the international education sector, we need assurances that our visitors, who are spending considerable time, effort and money to study here, are receiving a quality product and experience from their chosen educational institution. An eductor’s principal purpose should be just that—to educate. These requirements aim to ensure that only legitimate, genuine operators are registered to provide education to overseas students. We are requiring registered education providers to publish the names of the education agents who represent them and promote their education services and comply with any regulations relating to them.

These requirements are about increasing the accountability and transparency of international education and training providers. They give better assurance and confidence to students that the institutions they attend, the qualifications they receive at the end of their study and the advice and support they receive along the way are valuable, worth while and of high quality. These requirements are about reducing the risk to individual students but also to the industry’s reputation as a whole.

Australia is a popular destination for international students. Our universities, TAFEs and colleges rate very well internationally. Australia has established an excellent reputation globally for education and, coupled with its safe, relaxed environment and incredible natural wonders, there is no better place to study. I represent the electorate of Leichhardt up in tropical North Queensland. My electorate extends from Cairns and Port Douglas to the Daintree and Cooktown and right up to Cape York and the Torres Strait. It really is the best part of Australia, if not the world, and that is why millions of tourists visit our region every year. Cairns is also fortunate enough to be home to a great university in James Cook University and have a campus locally. James Cook University is officially ranked in the top five per cent of world universities, of which there are about 10,000, based on assessments in 2008 by two of the world’s leading university ranking systems. I know the university is highly regarded by students here and abroad, and researchers are attracted to the vision of an institution that strives to be one of the world’s leading research universities in the tropics. I know that Professor Sandra Harding, the vice-chancellor, is further developing and building upon that experience and knowledge to improve on its already world-class status in its tropical expertise. JCU is a critical driver of our region’s economy. According to the James Cook University Economic Impact Report 2008, JCU’s value to the Cairns economy is $86 million, and for every $1 million of expenditure the university creates $1.18 million for the Cairns economy.

The Rudd Government and JCU have partnered to deliver a new dental school—a $50 million investment I campaigned hard for in the lead-up to the last election and which is testament to the great work and great staff of this top quality campus. I was there recently opening some temporary training facilities and saw that students have started training there this year. The site has been cleared for the new building to be constructed and it will be completed towards the end of next year.

The establishment of the Cairns Institute is another exciting development taking shape at the Cairns campus with the support of the federal government. This international institute will provide advanced studies in the social sciences and humanities in the tropics—yet another facet in the university’s ambition to achieve excellence through higher education learning and research, particularly with a tropical focus. Cairns is a First World city in a First World country and we have a great opportunity to educate the world, particularly as it relates to tropical expertise. I am proud to be part of a government that is committed to supporting this quality local university with a first-class international reputation.

We have a world-class TAFE facility, private and community based vocational education and training organisations and English language schools. The Rudd government has just committed $12 million as part of its economic stimulus plan to upgrade the health and sustainable building precinct, library and car park at the Tropical North Queensland Institute of TAFE, and more than half a million dollars to build a community education and training facility with Skill360, the region’s peak group training organisation. We have stand-alone training centres like our Aviation Skills Centre and the soon-to-be constructed marine skills training centre. Thanks to a $2 million commitment from the government as part of our trades training package, we are building that in partnership with the Queensland government. We have fantastic state schools, catholic and non-government educational facilities in Cairns. In 2005, Cairns State High School, the region’s oldest high school, successfully completed the process for international accreditation through the Council of International Schools in partnership with the Council of Internationally Accredited Schools (Australia).

With quality educational institutions like these, and with the Great Barrier Reef, World Heritage listed rainforests and the outback all at our doorstep, it is no wonder that international education is also a steady and growing sector in our regional economy. Study Cairns is the region’s peak body bringing the different education providers in the region together with accommodation houses and tourism operators. Study Cairns members work together to promote Cairns internationally as an education destination and lobby nationally to improve local facilities and opportunities for all students within the region. The Study Cairns network is dedicated to improving the quality of services offered.

International students in Cairns come from Japan, China, Papua New Guinea, Europe, Hong Kong, Brazil and Korea, to name a few. The Cummings report in 2004 valued the industry at more than $50 million to the region and it would have grown considerably since then. I congratulate Susan Rees, the newly elected President of Study Cairns, for the leadership she has shown and look forward to partnering her and continuing to develop this important sector of our local economy. There is obviously a need to update the Cummings economic report done in 2004 so we can highlight further the real benefits of studying in Cairns and the value it brings to our local economy.

As I said earlier, unemployment in Cairns has hit 13.8 per cent and there is a desperate need for the region’s economy to diversify. Our world-class educational facilities including JCU, TAFE, marine and aviation skills centres, English language and high schools provide a great opportunity for Cairns to become an education hub not only for Queensland and Australia but for the Asia Pacific region and the rest of the world. We need, though, to protect the reputations of these institutions and the nation as an education provider. This legislation is about ensuring the quality reputation that education institutions have worked hard to establish is protected and ensuring the future remains bright for these very important contributors to education in this country and overseas and to our local economy. Cairns has an enormous amount of potential to further develop as an ‘education hub’, which is why it is critically important that the screws are tightened and unsavoury operators are weeded out and got rid of. It does not matter whether they are in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra or Cairns, we need to get them out and make sure we strengthen this industry going forward.

I strongly support the proposed amendments to the Education Services for Overseas Students Act. Australia has some of the best and brightest educators. We want to continue to attract talented students from around the world to our great institutions. It is paramount that we do what we can to protect the reputation of a hugely important export industry for Australia and for my home town of Cairns in tropical North Queensland.