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Monday, 19 October 2009
Page: 10074

Mr RAGUSE (1:41 PM) —I rise to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I acknowledge not only the contribution of the previous speaker, the member for Pearce, in the discussion of the Colombo Plan but also the member for Boothby, who also mentioned the Colombo Plan. It is something I will talk about a little bit later in my presentation. The interesting thing of course is that while it is a significant program, it was not all beer and skittles in terms of some of the issues and concerns that came out of that plan, which were not unlike some of the issues we are dealing with through this legislation.

Australia’s quality education services are well recognised and respected internationally. As a result, the growing education export sector is now worth a substantial $15 billion a year. As in any new area of rapid growth, some less scrupulous operators have appeared in the industry. No doubt members here in the House have seen publicity surrounding allegations against private college operators. Recently, the AAP published reports about alleged bad practices of private college operators. In the article, Overseas Students’ Support Network Australia’s Executive Director, Robert Palmer, reported that he had received over 1,500 serious complaints from students since the start of the year. Clearly, this is a situation of concern—concern for the wellbeing of students visiting Australia and concern for the international reputation of Australia as a quality education service provider. It is in this context that I speak on the bill that seeks to strengthen and restore confidence in education services for overseas students.

The bill seeks amendments to the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000. These amendments increase the accountability of international education and training service providers under the National Code of Practice for Registration Authorities and Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2007. The registration process for Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students is proposed to be strengthened by two new registration criteria. These new criteria involve demonstrating a genuine purpose and capacity to provide quality education services. A provider must have a principal purpose of providing education to have a genuine purpose. To restore confidence and ensure that these criteria are followed, all institutions will have to register by the end of 2010. Institutions that fail to reregister would have their registration cancelled.

The bill also contains a series of minor but important amendments. Providers will be required to publish the names of any education agents that represent them. A list of agents will be required to be published on websites and in any other manner prescribed by regulation. Enhancements are proposed for managing a provider’s registration, for a provider’s ability to provide educational services and for default situations. This includes the ability of the minister to impose conditions on a provider’s registration. The definition of a suitable alternative course will be clarified. This will help prevent students from being placed in courses that substantially differ from their anticipated course. The financial and regulatory burden will be lessened for providers that legitimately seek changes to their business structures.

In her second reading speech, the Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations noted the issue of recent racial violence against international students in Melbourne. While isolated, these attacks have inevitably dented our reputation overseas. I join with the minister in condemning these attacks. Australia remains a safe and welcoming country and the brutal actions of a few are not supported by the majority of Australians. It does have ramifications for our international reputation. Overseas students not only provide a tangible economic benefit to Australia but allow a valuable cultural dialogue. We all have the potential to gain from the positive exchange of ideas and cultures.

I mentioned the contribution by the member for Pearce on the Colombo plan. In fact, I have made a number of trips to do with the education sector—and I will talk about those in depth a little bit more later. I met one time with representatives from the Malaysian government and even had a one-off meeting with then Prime Minister Mahathir. He and his colleagues were beneficiaries of the Colombo plan. It was interesting because their experience of and exposure to some of the attitudes in Australia in the 1950s put in his mind—and this is something that he has reflected on at different times—an understanding of some of the racial hatred that existed at that period of time. That is going back a long time and attitudes in Australia have changed significantly. But the issue here, of course, is that here is a man who went on to become a very well-known and influential leader in the modern world. His views and concerns about Western globalisation were reflected at times in his dealings with Australia. He had concerns about our culture going back to his own experiences of some of the racial taunts back in the 1950s.

It is of concern that even small incidents that occur can have effects well into the future on our reputation in terms of people who study in this country, have access to this country or involvement in our culture. It is important that the legacy is a good legacy for us into the future. Mahathir was Prime Minister of Malaysia for 22 years. We all well know the clashes that we had at the political level during that period of time. All things being equal, the maturity of the relationship with Malaysia these days is very good. But it is clear that personal experience can have a bearing on people’s understanding of a country.

The minister also noted in her second reading speech the broader context of the Baird review of the Educational Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 and I will look forward to seeing the outcomes of this important review into this large and growing industry. It is an industry that has a significant affect on my electorate of Forde. The member for Moreton spoke earlier about Griffith University. I also have a campus of Griffith University in my electorate, the Logan campus at Meadowbrook. It is situated on the border of the Forde and Rankin electorates. It has a large draw of students from our areas, understandably. But their involvement with international students is well renowned. The international students attracted to the Logan campus inject large amounts of dollars into our local business and many students live nearby in private rental accommodation. So one of the aspects of international education is how it supports the local community, because these students become consumers while they are living in our country.

The Logan campus is located close to the Loganlea train station, the Pacific Motorway and the Logan Hospital. It caters for over 2,500 students, with a focus on community health and education. Courses are offered in areas including the arts, business, engineering, information technology, the environment, law, music and science. All of those areas are well revered and sought after by our international cohort of students.

Having a range of students from many different countries engaged in many different areas of study, the Griffith University, as part of their community health program, has embarked—with the aid of a number of their international students—on a number of cultural extension activities. I recently attended what they called the Hip Hop for Health, or the Hype Event, in August. This event brought a whole range of hip hop dancers together. It was a cultural exchange that also engaged 15 local high schools. It not only promoted health and fitness but the cultural exchange that goes with an event like this.

Dr Neil Harris of the Griffith University School of Public Health explained the unusual approach this way: ‘Hip hop as a particular dance style appeals to youth. Dance is often seen as a great recreational activity, yet it can also be a fun way to do intensive physical activity and has long-term health benefits.’ The event featured over a hundred dancers. While unusual, it was enjoyable and successful and an example of the kind of cultural exchange that comes out of the involvement of international students.

Further to that, I introduced into my electorate more activities for our youth and some of the students, including international students from some of the high schools. We put together a lecture series for students of the electorate, including a number of international students from Hills International and the Canterbury College at Waterford, who are doing very well in attracting international students to our local schools. As a federal member, I seek ways like this to engage further with our youth in the education sector and promote international studies.

We had one of these lectures last week and I would like to briefly mention those young people who contributed on the theme ‘My life, my time.’ The 10 finalists who came out of that particular event all received a reasonable amount of funds to go towards their further studies. These students were: Daisy Watson, from Rivermount College; Adam Tapsall, Ann-Marie Coleman and Madeleine Coonan from Canterbury College; Rebecca Payne, Mary Faucett and Pariya Singhanatnitirak from Beenleigh State High School; and Maddy Dale, Charlotte Piesse and Chantel Graveling from Tamborine Mountain State High School. All these students worked very hard in their own school environment but also took on the opportunity to enhance their understanding of their own life and time but also their culture exchanges. One of those students was a Thai student and she talked about her experiences in Australia.

With the concerns of the industry and the regulation that we are proposing through this legislation, it is interesting that, while governments have to legislate and regulate from time to time, quite often it is about self-improvement in the industry. To some degree these organisations need to have a level of self-regulation. After a series of events and the much publicised need to change and amend legislation I had a visit from, and a meeting with, a number of representatives from different organisations. More importantly, I had a visit from a Brisbane based organisation which is a subsidiary of the University of Queensland—International Education Services, better known as IES. Mr Gerry van Balveren and the director of the organisation, Chris Evason, met with me specifically to speak about this legislation, the reviews and their concerns about what had occurred.

Of course, being parochial and being in Queensland they suggested that these events occurred elsewhere in the country and that Queensland has a very good record. That may be true but the reality is that we cannot rest on our laurels in Queensland and expect that these concerns will never arise on our doorstep. And the reality is that these amendments are certainly all about ensuring that we get continuity across the services.

One of the interesting aspects of IES—it is an organisation that was formed in 1997—is that it is a not-for-profit organisation that provides the University of Queensland Foundation Year, the UQFY, with over 550 international students from over 30 countries. So it is has a great track record and is working very hard in the industry. To a large degree their activities are not well known to the wider educational community but that is simply because they are in there doing the job. It is a very well organised organisation. They said to me that they utilise over 101 agencies across 47 countries to source international students. All agents sign binding agreements and they take responsibility for these agents.

IES also provides internet based training and workshops for professionals in the industry through the Professional International Education Resources or PIER. It is very interesting to look at the resources and understand that PIER have over 11,000 subscribers to their particular system, which is a way of improving the understanding of those who are providing education services to internationals. The particular course, the Education Agent Training Course—the EATC—is a program that they run specifically to deal with some of the issues that are also dealt with in our legislation, regulation and the amendments that we are talking about today. The course specifically deals with some of these issues in a form of training. It is an irony that in the education environment it is so important that educators and those who administer education understand the processes and the traps.

It is interesting to note that as demand for international students grows, more and more people will enter this area and there will be a need for people who have a good understanding and who are well informed in terms of education and the design of education programs. They deal not only with the required bureaucratic response to international students and the way through that maze, but also the cultural requirements that go right across all areas of these students’ engagement. The IES bases this education online. It is a program that people can sign up to. Through the discussion I had with the IES I found that the results that they have had and the quality of education and services that they provide for the international students are well proven.

I have had quite a lot of experience in international programs in this country as a former educator and a director of an educator facility. My work here in Australia and also in a number of countries in South-East Asia some years ago was about developing a pipeline for international students to ensure that we had the right connectivity and to ensure that we had processes that would prevent occurrences like those we have seen recently with this outbreak of violence. It was to inform those who were providing the services in their own country and to provide them with a way of linking in with and forming the pipeline to the services that we can provide in this country. We know, through some of the problems and concerns that have arisen with that so-called violence, that some operators were less informed about their responsibilities when providing education to international students.

My understanding arises from my role back in the late nineties and early two thousands, when we were talking about new media—we have come to know that as multimedia—and the programs we were linking here in Australia with other countries and the South-East Asian countries. It was important then to make linkages that gave the students opportunities to enhance their own local understanding and credentialing and gave countries, like Malaysia, who were very keen on growing their educational base, the opportunity to link with Australian programs—university programs and some of the vocational educational and training programs. At that time, Malaysia, like many South-East Asian countries had programs they called the ‘two plus two’ or the ‘three plus one’. Essentially, the local training that was provided in their own universities was then topped up by study in other countries. Sometimes that occurred in the UK but at that time more and more people were travelling to Australia. Through the involvement that I had at that time it was clear to me that the linkages created a better pipeline to the demand for Australian credentials.

It is so important, as we have said through these amendments, that we ensure that the quality of education—and the perception of the quality of education—is maintained. The international student market is immense. We know that. Students generally travel to Australia for study on the basis that they understand, firstly, that the educational quality is there and that they are safe. That goes also for our international tourist traffic. So whether we are talking about education services, business tourism or education tourism, the students who come to Australia from overseas for cultural immersion come here because the country is safe. That is why it has caused us so much concern. While we know our educational products are sound, students will be very concerned. Their parents put together a large amount of money and funds to send their children to a country that can provide them with education in a safe environment. As we know, we would have the same concerns if we thought sending our own students off to school would mean that they were confronted by certain dangers. We could put ourselves into that context.

Students travel from other countries to a very different culture—a Western culture—and they can immerse themselves into the Australian culture. We want those people going back to their own countries with a positive experience. I gave the example of Prime Minister Mahathir and his experiences in the 1950s, and why he had a certain view.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 pm the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour. The member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.