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Monday, 19 October 2009
Page: 10126

Ms MARINO (5:14 PM) —I rise to speak today on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I begin by stressing the national importance of the overseas student market in Australian education services. The coalition support the intent of this bill; however, we believe it does not go far enough. We have proposed three amendments to the legislation with the core intent of improving the quality of education service delivery to overseas students.

It is not really well understood that overseas students represent Australia’s third largest export market, contributing $15.4 billion to the national economy in 2008. As a result, it is absolutely vital to the economy that such a significant services export be maintained. It has been a growth industry. The overwhelming experience of international students in Australia has been positive. I understand that 543,898 international students were enrolled in education programs in Australia in 2008—a 20.7 per cent increase on 2007 enrolments—with over 100,000 students originating from India.

The Adelaide Advertiser reported on 22 September that since 2007 the number of foreign students coming to Australia for vocational education has doubled, with just over 97,000 students starting courses by July 2009. I also understand that during 2007-08 over 278,000 student visas were granted—an increase of 21.69 per cent. Over 39,000 students came to Australia from India and over 31,000 came from China. Korea, the USA, Malaysia, Nepal, Brazil, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam are also sources of overseas students.

The majority of the international students are in higher education. Management and commerce take the most enrolments, followed by information technology. The vocational education and training sector has experienced rapid growth due to the high regard worldwide for the valuable work skills provided and the quality of the programs here in Australia. The English language intensive course has also experienced serious growth. In spite of Australia’s reputation as a provider of top-quality education for students from around the world clearly demonstrated by these figures, we are aware that Australia’s provision of education for overseas students has come under scrutiny recently with alarming allegations made against some private education providers. Some students, despite complying with all the requirements, are being forced to pay fees over and above their agreed original payment.

The negativity surrounding Australia’s overseas student market has been exacerbated by international media coverage of protests in Australia by Indian students following a number of violent assaults. Given that the majority of overseas students come from India, this is of course a very serious concern. Just last month the Australian reported attacks on four Indian men in Melbourne. Such violence is clearly dampening efforts to promote Australia as a safe destination for overseas students. On the same page, the Australian revealed that a two-storey Brisbane suburban home was being used to house up to 37 foreign students. This was reportedly to service the $6,000 a month lease to cover the education agent’s upstairs home office.

It is of great concern that Australia’s reputation as a safe and ethical provider of higher education is at a risk as a result of the practices of some unscrupulous providers and education agents. I note that an article in the Australian on 16 September reported that 18 private vocational colleges have had their overseas student licences cancelled since 2001 and that the failure of four colleges, involving 3,000 students, is being dealt with at this time.

There is no doubt that the actions of the providers and agents has damaged and is damaging this important industry. Therefore, the government must act to address these issues immediately and prevent further damage or loss of confidence. This is why the first amendment the coalition has proposed is aimed at ensuring that regulatory bodies follow a risk management approach when determining the re-registration of providers. Improving the accountability of not only colleges and education agents but also state and territory regulators is an integral part of this. The coalition believes it is essential that education agents are providing reliable and up-to-date information to prospective students to enable those students to make very sound, informed decisions. We will be pushing the government to ensure that all providers of tertiary education are appropriately audited and monitored.

The coalition’s second proposed amendment to improve the services provided by education agents will require them to undertake qualified training. The qualified training will cost approximately $400 and will result in more accurate information being provided to prospective students. We believe this measure will help ensure that the education experience in Australia is in line with the individual expectations of overseas students and is also consistent with the information they are provided with prior to deciding which educational institution or provider to attend.

The third concern of the coalition surrounds the default fund for reimbursing overseas students should their provider cease operation. This fund will be responsible for reimbursing students when the fund manager is unable to secure a suitable alternative training place for the student and provide greater confidence and surety in our system for the students themselves. The coalition’s third amendment endeavours to improve accountability and transparency of the Education Services for Overseas Students Assurance Fund. The amendment recommends that this be done by the fund manager being required to provide the minister with a written report in each instance of provider default where a claim is made on the fund. The minister will then have 30 days to table this in parliament.

International students certainly need reassurance and the confidence that the Australian government takes their concerns seriously and will do everything in its power to prevent student exploitation by unscrupulous providers. The coalition’s amendments will provide additional safeguards prior to the release of the Baird review of the education services for overseas students legislation. As I mentioned earlier, the coalition value and recognise the importance of the overseas student market to Australia, which is why we are proposing these amendments to this bill. We are urging the government to take a stronger stance on this legislation and accept the three amendments proposed by the coalition.

I understand Minister Gillard met with a group of international students to discuss issues in relation to this legislation. Not surprisingly, the international students at the hand-picked roundtable meeting poorly represented or excluded various ethnic groups and representative bodies. I also recall the minister recently holding another hand-picked, under-represented roundtable meeting with students to discuss the Youth Allowance legislation. Students in coalition electorates, which cover the vast majority of regional and rural areas, were excluded. I know for a fact there were no students from Western Australia included. There certainly were no students from my electorate included, and my electorate has a significant number of regional and rural students who will be affected by the government’s proposed changes to Youth Allowance.

It is no wonder the coalition is extremely worried about education under this minister and the Labor Party and is proposing these amendments, given that the Building the Education Revolution program—a program that is being plagued by waste and mismanagement and, clearly, a part-time minister—has already seen at least a $1.5 billion blow-out. In fact, the $14.7 billion program is now a $16.2 billion program, all built on funds borrowed from the taxpayer that will have to be paid back by the very students who are currently attending the schools receiving the funding. It is effectively intergenerational debt, courtesy of the Labor Party. It is indicative of the level of concern that the BER program is being investigated by the Auditor-General.

Day after day we have heard in this parliament during question time of the problems being experienced by schools and have seen very serious examples of waste and mismanagement. There is the payment of exorbitant fees to consultants and project managers. There are reports of profiteering. There are the examples of $3.5 million allocated for plaques, $3.8 million allocated for display signs outside schools which have been found by the Electoral Commission to be outside the rules and $250,000 spent on a one-student school. We are given example after example of buildings that schools do not want or have no choice over. Our proposed amendments reflect our concern that the minister has a history of mismanagement, demonstrated by the trade training centres that have not been delivered; the computers in schools program, which blew out from $800 million to $2.2 billion; and, critically for students and families in my electorate, the attack on regional and rural students through the Youth Allowance debacle.

As I mentioned earlier, the number of foreign students studying in Australia has doubled since 2007. Whilst foreign students bring benefits to the local region and economy, it must be asked why this increase is occurring. The Australian Financial Review commented on 21 October that the increase in Asian students studying in Australia is largely due to geographical closeness. As I said earlier, the coalition is extremely concerned about the safety and support measures that the government has taken so far to improve the international student experience. The coalition believes that we must ensure that international students receive an excellent education experience in Australia but do not use their education primarily as a pathway to permanent migration. However, we must also recognise the tremendous contribution to our economic productivity, particularly in regional areas, and to our society that is made by many graduates who do migrate following their studies.

The events over the past few months make it clear that we need to do more to ensure that reputable providers and our best universities are not undermined by unscrupulous providers. The events also demonstrate that the government has not done enough to date to improve the system of regulating providers of tertiary education in Australia. The reputation of the Australian education industry is now being compromised, given that the Prime Minister and Minister Gillard have not responded quickly and effectively. There needs to be a fully independent inquiry into the regulation and registration of education providers and a crackdown on education agents and those who are providing fraudulent documentation to students. Education agents should be brought under the same type of accreditation, registration and monitoring regime as migration agents. The quality and integrity of courses must be scrutinised and better monitored and regulated. More educational institutions need to adopt a mentoring role to ensure positive relationships with their peers and the community. The role of the Commonwealth Ombudsman should also be expanded to have jurisdiction over investigating complaints by international students.

I support the coalition’s proposed amendments to improve the government’s legislation and to provide appropriately for overseas students. In my electorate of Forrest, the number of international student enrolments at the South West Regional College of TAFE rose from 39 in 2008 to 67 in 2009. The TAFE college anticipates that the enrolment numbers in 2010 will remain similar to those of the current year. The international students currently studying in my electorate come from approximately 29 different countries. Western Australia is fortunate in that it is the closest entry point for African and Asian students. This, however, must not be taken for granted. Australia must work hard to retain and increase the number of Asian students studying in Australia. As the Financial Review reported earlier this year, Europe is muscling in on the Asian student market. The report highlighted that Germany, Denmark and Sweden are upping the ante on student recruitment in some of Australia’s biggest source markets in Asia.

I have been informed that there are a number of students from Chile who have expressed interest in studying viticulture in the town of Margaret River—a famous name—in my electorate. However, the absence of affordable housing and suitable accommodation means that it is difficult to supply these prospective students with a suitable package. This is an ongoing issue that affects not only prospective international students but also many working families in my electorate. International students contribute directly to south-west communities. Not only does the education institution benefit from increased enrolment numbers but the money the students spend during their time in the community benefits the local economy. If the government is serious about protecting and maintaining Australia’s third largest export it must tighten the legislation.

In conclusion, the coalition welcome the intent of this bill, but, as I said, we believe it does not go far enough. I urge the government to implement the three proposed amendments and the further amendments that will be made in the near future, once the Senate committee and the Baird review have reported. I note that the Baird review is focusing on four main areas: the welfare of students, the quality of services, regulation and the sustainability of the industry. An interim report will be provided by November for consideration by COAG, which is considering an international student strategy. The concerns expressed by students at the lack of information about education providers that is available to them before they make their decision on where to study, as well as work, transport, accommodation and personal safety issues, will no doubt form part of the deliberations of the Senate committee and the Baird review. I will read with great interest the recommendations of their reports. I support the coalition’s proposed amendments. Thank you.