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Monday, 19 October 2009
Page: 10111

Mrs D’ATH (4:14 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009. Australia welcomes the over 5.9 million visitors who come here each year. These visitors come for a range of reasons—the majority are tourists, temporary workers and international students. It is for these visitors that Australia must uphold its reputation as a safe destination: a destination where laws exist to protect people, whether they are citizens of this country, visitors, workers or students. In recent times, Australia’s international education sector has been marred by the actions of some unscrupulous providers. We have also been affected by the small proportion in our country who engage in criminal acts against foreign students. These are shameful acts that the community condemns.

This bill is not intended to deal with acts of violence against students. Those are broader issues that must be tackled by all levels of government and the broader community. However, this bill does seek to go some way to addressing the quality of education provided to international students. It will amend the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 to make provision for the re-registration of all institutions currently registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students by 31 December 2010. To become registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students, a provider must demonstrate that it complies with the requirements of the National Code of Practice for Registration Authorities and Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2007. The National Code is established under the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 and is a legislative instrument. As such, any breaches of the code by providers can result in enforcement action under the act.

Through this bill the national code will be further enhanced by two new registration measures for education providers. The new provisions will require state and territory registration authorities to be satisfied that the provider’s principal purpose is to provide education and that the provider has demonstrated capacity to provide education of a satisfactory standard. I note the comments of the member for Mitchell, who supports self-regulation and believes that the government should not place extra burden on ethical training organisations. The criteria that will be added as a consequence of this bill should not be seen as an extra burden. These criteria are standards that every provider should comply with and those providers that are ethical, have a long history of being compliant and are well regarded in the national and international community for the services they provide should easily meet them. Consequently, our implementing of such additional criteria should not be seen as placing a burden on these providers.

I was a member of the Queensland Training and Employment Recognition Council from 2000 to 2007. It was the role of the council to advise on policy and guidelines for issues including the registration and regulation of training organisations and training contracts, the accreditation of courses and the regulation of accredited courses. I have witnessed the importance of ensuring the highest standards for the delivery of training and education. In Australia, we require domestic education providers to meet strict requirements, including satisfying the Australian Quality Training Framework. Action is taken where a provider fails to meet these standards—whether at the point of registration, when seeking registration for the scope of their training or as a consequence of an audit arising from a complaint or a normal assessment. The Training and Employment Recognition Council is able to require a provider to rectify a failure within a certain time. If the provider is unable to do so, the council can require it to show cause why its scope of registration, a particular course or its registration to operate as a provider should not be cancelled. It is reasonable for international students to expect that international education providers operating in Australia are equally required to meet strict criteria. If the provider is unable to do so the necessary steps should be taken to have the provider rectify the issue or to have a range of penalties applied. In the worst circumstances, where the provider is not able to provide any suitable courses of an appropriate standard to the student, action should be taken to cancel the provider’s registration.

Deficiencies have been identified in the current legislation regulating the international education sector and the government is obligated to address these developing issues. The government’s action should ensure that current and future students are provided with the best quality education while they study in Australia. That is why I welcome the minister’s comments that the state governments have already started rapid audits of providers and that these will be extended so that all providers working with international students will need to show that they have the best interests of the students at heart—not simply a profit motive. As I stated, the member for Mitchell took issue with this and, in effect, implied that training organisations that are reputable and that have a strong, positive history in this sector should not be required to undergo these audits. I disagree with the member’s comments. I think it is incumbent on us to ensure that the standing of this sector, both nationally and internationally, is upheld. To do that we must ensure that all the training providers operating within this industry meet the same criteria and undergo the same audit.

I recently had the opportunity to talk to some training organisations who operate in my local area and across Queensland and nationally providing training to international students. I discussed with them such questions as when the audit should be conducted, whether organisations who do have a longstanding history of being compliant should necessarily be pushed down to the bottom of the list as far as the priority of auditing is concerned and whether those organisations who are newer to the industry and so do not have that long history of compliance and reputation should actually be audited first. There were also issues such as whether organisations who may already have undertaken an audit in the last 12 months should also be pushed further back in the process. These are audit process issues that I have certainly guaranteed to take forward to the relevant department and minister. As I have already stated, this audit and reregistration process has to be completed by 31 December 2010, so the issues that have been raised with me by training organisations can certainly be considered in light of the time frame. It is important to note that those training organisations were not at any point saying they should not be required to undertake these audits. It is more a matter of timing and ensuring that those cases which we need to concentrate on are where students may be most at risk. They are the ones that we should be dealing with first. I am more than willing to take those issues up on their behalf.

With 327 institutions and over 4,605 courses registered in Queensland alone, it is essential that confidence in the quality of the Australian international education sector be upheld. By requiring all institutions to reregister, the government will be able to ensure that these institutions and the courses that they deliver meet the standards set down by the national code of practice. With so many courses available, international studies have certainly come a long way in recent years. The courses being undertaken by international students are not limited to vocational courses. In fact, they range from secondary studies at schools, both private and public, right through to masters degrees at our universities. In my local area I am aware of a number of secondary schools that have enrolled international students each year. I believe that, by having these international students in our schools, much can be learnt about their home country, their language and their culture. Equally, they have the ability to gain much from Australian students about life in Australia. I welcome international students into our local schools and our local community. By doing so we are a better nation for it. Australia can only become a more tolerant and accepting society through our engagement with our international visitors and our multicultural communities.

The government’s responsibility does extend beyond the students’ interests—and of course this bill is not focused merely on providing improved protection for students—to ensure protection of the institutions that operate within the international education sector in Australia. Many providers are providing a valuable service and quality education. It is important that the industry be regulated to ensure that those providers’ reputations are not sullied by the few who do the wrong thing. That is why this bill will allow the discretionary removal of the prohibition on education providers collecting moneys from studying students when a course has been suspended. The bill will also allow conditions imposed by states and territories on education providers to be recognised by the Commonwealth and allow exemptions from punitive provider default refund requirements for providers changing their legal entity. These provisions are important to ensure appropriate flexibility exists in the system to allow sanctions to be enforced in a manner commensurate with the level of breach and also to have regard for the individual circumstances in each case. For example, there are times when a provider may be in breach of the act or national code due to a change in the legal entity. Currently insufficient flexibility exists for these providers to continue to operate and collect fees from enrolled students. It is important that the federal government have in place strong enforceable compliance arrangements but also that any penalties are able to be attributed in a way that addresses the breach balanced with the obligations to and the needs of the international students involved.

This bill will also make provision for publication by providers of the names of education agents who represent them and promote their education services and it will require providers to comply with any matters prescribed in the regulations concerning their agents. This is an extremely important initiative. We have all heard of examples of international students being promised assistance with permanent residence in Australia through the study of courses here in Australia. These sales pitches come from some agents who are promoting international education institutions within Australia. Recently it was reported in the Australian newspaper that a Korean education agent had been implicated in the running of a two-storey Brisbane suburban home that was housing up to 37 foreign students. The report stated:

A raid by Brisbane City Council inspectors uncovered the operation under which a near record number of students were being used to service a $6000-a-month lease to cover the education agents’ upstairs home-office.

Although the issue of accommodation for international students is not the subject of these amendments before the House, that the person involved was an education agent certainly raises concerns. The minister’s second reading speech for the bill before the House does identify the need to address the practices of agents operating both within and outside of Australia in recruiting international students to Australia. Although these appalling practices are only engaged in by a small few, they can damage the reputation of the international education sector in Australia as a whole. Not only is Australia’s reputation put at risk but there are significant ramifications for the international students who are enrolled under false pretences. That is why it is important that the government provide further protections for overseas students from this type of conduct. This bill will do so through the additional requirements placed on providers. The bill will provide a mechanism through which international students will be able to raise any concerns about agents. The bill will also enable the regulations to prescribe the criteria to be applied, in considering whether a particular course is a suitable alternative, in circumstances where obligations would otherwise be imposed on a registered provider to refund monies paid by a student.

This bill addresses the immediate issues in relation to unintended consequences arising from previous amendments to this act and also deals with some of the developing issues in the international education sector. The positive benefits I have spoken about in relation to international students attending Australian schools equally apply to international students attending the other education institutions throughout this country.

Society can gain much from the experience of hosting international students. In recent times, we have all been appalled at the treatment of some international students in Australia. Any attack on students based on their ethnic background should be condemned and is not something that Australia is proud of. We know that the people who engage in such activities are not representative of our broader community, in which many cultures are celebrated and many nationalities embraced. Australia’s obligations are not limited to those visiting our shores. Australia also has an obligation to assist developing countries and we do so in many ways with foreign aid and other cooperative arrangements. The ability to allow people from developing countries to learn a trade or skill in Australia that can then benefit their own country through the use of those skills is another important way that Australia can play its part internationally.

The benefits of having an international education sector within Australia are not limited to the enrichment that students gain through the sharing of knowledge and beliefs or the new skills that they obtain; the sector is also significant for Australia’s economy. With almost 460,000 enrolments in Australia across the four sectors of Australian international education, international education, as an industry, is now Australia’s biggest services export. I have already spoken about the benefits to Queensland alone, with its significant number of institutions and courses available to international students. This is why it is important that internationally there is confidence in the quality of the Australian international education sector.

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Rudd government not only for the introduction of this bill but also for bringing forward the international students review to be headed up by the former federal member for Cook, Mr Bruce Baird. The review will consider the need for enhancements to the legal framework of education services for overseas students in four key areas: supporting the interests of students, delivering quality as the cornerstone of Australian education, effective regulation and sustainability of the international education sector.

The Minister for Education, the Hon. Julia Gillard, also held a roundtable with 31 international students here in Canberra recently. These students are currently studying around Australia and have the opportunity to bring their concerns directly to the attention of the government. In addition, the government has recently released a good practice guide to assist international colleges and the minister has announced that details of the best performing international college providers will be made available so that all colleges can learn from best practice. These are all positive steps forward to ensure that Australia maintains its standing in the international community for delivering quality education to international students.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to some of my local training organisations. I met with representatives, including the general manager, of Sarina Russo, a well-known training organisation not just in Queensland but nationally. It is not only participating in vocational education and training and business courses but also has a large component of international students. I took great pleasure in meeting their representative group, including a representative from James Cook University, to talk about their issues and hear their input. I strongly encouraged them to make a submission to the review.

The Rudd government holds concerns that, in such a rapidly growing industry such as the international education sector, a small number of unscrupulous operators will arise from time to time for whom the provision of quality education is not a first motive. These operators prey on students overseas who wish to come to Australia to live as opposed to gaining a skill or trade. The message to these providers from the Rudd government is simple: if you are not providing your students with a quality education in a safe environment, clean up your act or risk being shut down.

This bill, along with the initiatives already outlined, will work to clean up the industry and restore confidence in Australia’s international education sector. I commend the bill to the House.