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Monday, 19 October 2009
Page: 10115


Mr BILLSON (4:34 PM) —I rise to offer some thoughts on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009 and to urge the Rudd government to embrace the amendments that the opposition has foreshadowed. I commend the member for Petrie for her considered contribution. A number of the points that she raised are similar to those I would like to raise, but I also underline the fact that there is no single event or action that will deal with the concerns that this bill seeks to address. An integrated approach is required. Getting the educational providers up to speed in offering quality and integrity in their product is important, but it needs to be supported by the processes through which international students gain access to those programs, by the quality of their experience and by the quality and integrity in the migration processes that support them, while we have an eye to our broader national interest. That is why this bill is, I think, well intended, although it does fall short on some of the actions that need to be taken. All of us in this place look forward to the work of the Baird committee and to the outcomes from the Senate inquiry that has canvassed these issues.

This bill specifically seeks to focus on the education providers. It does that by requiring a re-registration of institutions that are registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students, CRICOS, by 31 December 2010. It establishes two new registration requirements for education providers and also obliges providers to list the names of their agents and to ensure that these agents comply with regulations relating to them and their conduct. It endeavours to strengthen the regulatory framework to address concerns about the industry and the wellbeing of international students who come to this country and, as in a number of recently publicised cases, find the experiences not what we as a nation wish for them or what they expect. These measures partly need to tackle what are rare, thankfully, but worrying examples of fraudulent practices. We have seen some examples where providers have been found to be shonky, where education agents have promised the world but not even delivered a globe or an atlas and where students have come to Australia to pursue a course of study in the belief that they will ultimately, and almost without fault, receive a migration outcome as a result of their studies—that is, complete a course of study and secure a permanent resident visa.

There are some opportunities for people concluding their studies and securing Australian recognised qualifications to transition that effort into migration processes for permanent residency, but those need to be carefully explained and the students, who in many cases spend serious sums of money, need to be absolutely aware of what they are purchasing. This is not purchasing visas. This is, effectively, overseas education export where people are purchasing a training and education opportunity. This is one of the things that need to be addressed as part of the government’s response to these more recent concerns.

Our international education industry has grown significantly over the past decade. Between June 2008 and 2009 alone, the growth of enrolments in all education sectors was 19.6 per cent. What is most striking, though, is what a vast pace of growth we have seen in the vocational education and training space, which also correlates to where some of the more worrying examples have arisen. That gives us a bit of an insight into where effort should be placed.

The provision of education to overseas students is our third largest export earner. It was $15.4 billion worth of exports in 2008. It is vital that we keep that effort and that we maintain the quality and integrity of our international student offer so that people continue to be attracted to studying and learning skills in Australia. We can benefit from that work not only in terms of export earnings but also in terms of the mutual understanding and the insights we gain both from those students and their countries of origin and, in turn, the insights students gain about us, our nation and what we hope to offer them and the world as a forward-looking, open country.

There are providers in my own electorate of Dunkley. Chisholm Institute of TAFE has, for a long time, been providing international student opportunities. Monash University, particularly, has the appeal of the peninsula campus for students from South-East Asian areas where being somewhat removed from downtown campuses is considered attractive. There is a perception among parents of South-East Asian students that the nearer you are to the downtown area, the nearer you may be to mischief. There are some secondary school providers as well. The Peninsula School, Toorak College and Frankston High School have all been offering international student opportunities over my time as the member for Dunkley. In fact, the Export Market Development Grants Scheme recognised the importance of this work under the Howard government and provided some financial assistance for the Peninsula School and Toorak College to extend and support their international education efforts.

You can see, with that history, why it is quite alarming that we have seen some examples of education providers and some students who have not been meeting requirements and therefore brought this whole system into some question, requiring closer examination. It is crucial that the quality and integrity of the international student system be maintained not only for the student experience and not only for the qualifications themselves but also because, as people venture out into the world with Australian-based qualifications, we need to make sure that that qualification stacks up. If there is a perception out there it has not been properly earned or has been purchased off the side of a Weeties packet then that will undermine the Australian brand and the confidence and assurance that people have in qualifications sourced from Australia or from Australian institutions. It is also important that the education providers themselves are of a quality so that those institutions are inoculated. We recognise that the international student market is quite vibrant. There are other options out there and if our offer is not up to scratch then that can reflect badly on our nation and on the student experience.

Moreover, if the qualifications themselves are relied upon by employers either here or overseas and found to be wanting then that, again, reflects badly on our systems. Our systems are of such credibility that, in my time working with AusAID as Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, some of our overseas development assistance work actually involved carrying forward our system—particularly of vocational education and training—into some of the countries we were partnering with. I remember vividly the work we did with China as it sought to step up its vocational education and training system. Our system itself was a key area of focus and interest for the Chinese as they sought to, in some ways, emulate what we have done here. If we bring that into disrepute then that has ramifications more broadly.

It is also important that, as we expand people-to-people understandings and relationships and build an international rapport, people from other countries who study in Australia leave with a very positive experience and a worthwhile and meaningful qualification. Again, looking at our overseas development program, offering academic education and training opportunities is seen to be important to capacity building for those participants that can then return to their home countries and apply the know-how, knowledge, skills and education they have gained as part of their time in Australia or working in partnership with Australian education institutions.

You can see the importance of getting this right. We have seen some vivid examples of where things have gone amiss, particularly with protests by Indian students and some examples of assaults and violence. Some of that is perhaps a response to an education industry in crisis—or at least one that is reported that way—and a reaction to immigration rorting where students were frustrated that they had been engaging in the course of study they had chosen, had applied themselves and their resources to that course, had spent significant sums of money, had been asked in some cases having arrived here to pay additional fees over and above what was agreed, and then had colleges of perhaps dubious quality and dubious motives threatening to revoke visas.

It again highlights why the whole system needs to be addressed. Who knows what these students had been told? Who knows what assurances or expectations had been created? Were those expectations credible? Could those assurances be actually given by agents seeking to profit from that international student experience but not in a position to offer a commentary on migration outcomes that might result from their participation in the very course that they are seeking to sell?

You can see how the situation is set up for some of these agents to over sell what it is they are offering, for education agents to push one particular product where their fee or commission might be attractive and to argue that that somehow is a more attractive, easier or streamlined way of getting a migration outcome. You can see that temptation. That conversation and transaction can occur a long way from Australia, and we need to make sure that the reach of our regulatory efforts can account for that kind of transaction and that kind of service overreach where education agents are claiming to be offering a whole lot more than some advice on courses that are available and suited to that person here in Australia. This is the importance of getting training organisations and academic institutions up to scratch.

In Victoria, the state that I am from, there are some situations that I am reasonably familiar with. We saw quite a hive of activity; a feverish amount of activity by the state government to try and shut down dubious registered training organisations. They have been forced to cease operations in some cases. What I would say to the Victorian authorities—and in fact to all of the state and territory authorities—is that this is not an event. Rather, this needs to be ongoing process; this needs to be, as Deming’s would say in quality assurance terms, an ongoing committed process in which we can identify deviations from acceptable practice and act responsively and quickly so that it does not fester into the kind of crisis that has occupied not only media coverage in Melbourne, Victoria and Australia but in international media outlets as well. We need to act to make sure that those outriders, that small percentage of unsavoury operators that are seeking to profit while not promoting good educational outcomes, are brought to heel. This bill goes some way towards doing that—although, as I have mentioned earlier, not far enough in my view.

There is a need to repair the reputation of the industry. But let me again emphasise that a small number of providers have been involved in this, a number of them in the vocational education and training area that is in part accounting for what is an astronomical growth in participation. In fact, VET enrolments grew by 39.3 per cent over the past 12 months. Comparing that to higher education enrolments, which grew 11.6 per cent, we might start to think that something is going on and we need to have a closer look at this.

The coalition recognises the importance of supporting international academic opportunities and international students. I spoke when we strengthened this legislation back in the year 2000 and touched on the need to have in place the ESOS default fund to reimburse overseas students who had been led down a very unfortunate path by providers, such as when providers cease operating or where the fund manager is unable to secure suitable alternative training opportunities. As a result of this spate of recent closures—this flurry of activity, with state and territory education authorities making sure that the education providers in their jurisdictions are up to scratch—some pressure has been created on the reserves in that fund. That is something that the government needs to turn its mind to in order to maintain it as a safety net for when education providers are found wanting and international students are left short because of that.

The relationships that need to be nurtured are between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. A whole-of-government response is what is needed. The Baird inquiry, run by my friend and former colleague Bruce Baird, is a very positive step in the right direction. There are enforcement powers available at state and territory levels. They are rarely exercised, although recently they were dusted off. You could tell that that was happening. There were sneezes happening all around the regulatory authorities at a state and territory level, because they had finally realised that these powers were there and they got an allergy when the dust started flying around when they decided to exercise those powers. That needs to happen more consistently and more reliably.

The amendments that the coalition is putting forward support the intent of the bill but deal with the fact that there is a need to go further. The bill does not go far enough in relation to providing international students with adequate levels of assurance or in ruling out unscrupulous or inept providers. It does not encourage a stronger risk management approach to be embraced by state and territories in the registration process. Therefore, whether the bill will meet its objectives is something that only time will tell. There is a need for more consultation by the minister. A more targeted approach is required. An early intervention culture needs to be built. I touched on the number of VET enrolments, and that certainly would have raised my eyebrows.

Re-registration is something that will be carried out by state training authorities, and they have not been consulted on the way through. As the member for Petrie mentioned, there are a number of issues about those that may have just registered a short time ago and those with a proven record of credibility and integrity getting some acknowledgment for the cost and effort of re-registration. These are some areas that I would urge the government to pick up.

I touched earlier on the ESOS assurance fund and the payment to overseas students when a provider has defaulted and there is no suitable alternative course available. That pretty much ran out of cash in January 2008, so that safety net is something that needs to be revisited.

There are a number of other measures that the opposition believes that the government should pursue. These include improving the quality frameworks around the provision of education to overseas students, tightening up the legislation, helping to prevent students being duped by incompetent or dishonest providers, tightening the eligibility for education agents and looking at these migration issues.

In my time as Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, we spent quite a lot of time with this issue with the Migration Agents Registration Authority trying to work out a way in which we could have international application of a domestic registration arrangement. I remember being at the High Commission in Fiji and being told that there was not a lot that we could do about migration agents offshore promising the world, taking handsome fees for it and in not all cases offering wise advice that was consistent with the law. I made the point that I thought that those who voluntarily agreed to subject themselves to our registration and regulatory arrangements could have their applications fast tracked. That would say to those agents offshore and outside the reach of our domestic law, ‘If you play along with our domestic law, we will fast track your application in advance of applications that might be processed by agents that have hung a shingle outside their door but have not shown that same commitment to our domestic systems.’

I still think that there is scope to do that. I do not underestimate the difficulty of it. But if we cannot enforce domestic registration arrangements on overseas migration agents—separating that role from overseas education agents in the knowledge that they are two quite distinct functions—let us put some incentives in place to encourage those people based overseas to work in a way that is complementary to our shared goal of integrity, quality and assurance in our international education system. There is scope there. There is an opportunity for the departments federally to pursue some of those ideas.

There is a strong argument for greater transparency in calls on the fund. That is another part of the amendments that the opposition has brought forward. It is aimed at improving the services of education agents by ensuring that they undertake appropriate qualifications and at making sure that they maintain the high level of confidence that we expect of them, regardless of where they are located.

I hope that Bruce Baird’s experience is brought to bear in the review role of the committee that he has taken on. I hope that he takes a whole-of-government view at a Commonwealth level and then recognises that many of the points of leverage are not always within the Commonwealth’s jurisdiction and that we need the best out of a range of participants to get a good outcome.

Finally, I think there is a need to revisit some of the consultative arrangements. I mentioned earlier that the re-registration process was free of any consultation with the state and territory based regulation agencies, even though they will be asked to do this work.

As for the minister’s roundtable for international students, boy is that a gabfest for the in-crowd! If you are not in a G8 university or an internationally acclaimed college you do not get a look in. There is a stack of applications—1,300 applications—from international students, all busting to provide their views, yet we end up with a love-in of the Group of Eight plus acclaimed colleges, and no room amongst 31 student representatives for a broader perspective. Why wasn’t there an opportunity to embrace, say, a Korean representative, given that Korea is providing one-third of the intake of international students, and why was there no scope for addressing the Saudi Arabian student interest, given the 73 per cent increase in their numbers? I think this was an opportunity that was missed. We could have had a broader representation of international students to get to the heart of what they are seeing and what they would like to see, and to understand their experiences.

This bill is well meaning; it needs to go further. I hope that the government looks seriously at the coalition’s proposed amendments. I hope that some of my suggestions about how to make the whole international student system work better receive considered assessment by the government. This is such an important thing to get right and there are a number of steps we need to take to do that.