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Monday, 19 October 2009
Page: 10130

Ms VAMVAKINOU (5:29 PM) —I am very pleased to speak in support of the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009. This is a bill which is of vital importance to our education system as a learning and professional pathway for both Australians and our overseas student market. I would like to commend the recent efforts of the Minister for Education, the Hon. Julia Gillard, in developing a quick and formative response to this very pressing issue.

I stand here today in full support of the Rudd Labor government’s measures aimed at protecting Australia’s reputation for delivering quality education services by updating and enhancing the operation of existing legislation. This amendment bill establishes a regulatory regime for the provision of international education, and a training service to protect the interests of overseas students, through the establishment of minimum standards of tuition and financial assistance. It also complements Australia’s migration laws by ensuring that providers collect and report information relevant to the administration of the law relating to student visas.

This amendment bill will ensure that the use of education agents by international education providers remains both transparent and open to accountability. An improvement in the regulatory procedures of our international education sector will ensure that the general welfare of overseas students is protected from exploitation by unscrupulous operators. This is an issue which has become a serious cause for concern well beyond our shores, and I want to note the Prime Minister’s recent prompt reassurance to his Indian counterpart following attacks on international students and particularly Indian students. This reassurance reflects the government’s commitment to ensuring that our hospitality towards those who come to enjoy our world-class education institutions continues to hold the first-rate reputation that it deserves.

I would also like to take this opportunity to highlight the success of the Minister for Education’s most recent trip to India, which I believe—and most of us believe—helped to strengthen our close working relationship and facilitated making the reforms outlined in this bill more effective. I welcome the minister’s announcement of the formation of an annual joint working group on student mobility, which met for the first time in India some weeks ago.

The sad truth, though, is where there is a market that attracts the growth and vitality of our education institutions there seems to be the existence of unscrupulous training providers who want to take advantage of our well-deserved reputation by exploiting those who are most vulnerable to their dodgy practices. This is not a new phenomenon. It is an issue that has been known to the education community for some time. It is an issue whose rectification has been a long time coming. I need to congratulate the government for finally doing what even the previous government failed to do in rectifying the situation.

I want to commend the Minister for Education’s launch last month of the international student roundtable. The roundtable serves to provide international students with a platform from which to voice their concerns, in order for them to be addressed effectively and directly. It sends out a strong message that we are determined to manage this problem ourselves rather than push students into having their frustrations vented through other channels of communication, particularly through sensationalised media coverage—the likes of which we have seen on a number of occasions recently and the likes of which we all understand harm our reputation and cause disturbances in our community.

The vitality of our $15.5 billion overseas student market—our third-largest export industry—is not only important to the general economy and wellbeing of Australia but also serves as the financial underpinning of our higher education system. We need therefore to make sure that we continue to maintain the trust of the nearly half a million international students who often serve as cultural ambassadors for our country after they have finished their courses and returned to their homes. They serve as a source of first-rate intellectual capital for both our education institutions and of our country as a whole. We cannot allow these substandard operators to literally ruin both our international reputation and competitive position in this lucrative market.

The government has recognised that a safety net for failed institutions alone is not enough and, as such, the measures in this bill attempt to ensure that vocational training courses are properly and effectively regulated. Members might remember a program that aired on the ABC’s Four Corners in July. As reported in that program, it is now strikingly clear that students are being lured into purchasing dubious certifications for work hours, which they are told is required for residency status. The Age newspaper also extensively reported, in May, that foreign students are being sold certificates and phoney work-experience references. This is in addition to being presented with unqualified instructors who offer students a result not on based merit but correlating to the thousands of dollars in cash payments they extract from students through the false lure of permanent residency.

This appalling practice is putting students in debt and is creating an illegal black market that not only damages our reputation but also sends vulnerable students into bankruptcy and out into our streets. The consequences of this corrosive culture, within some institutions, on the welfare of international students has been detailed by many newspapers—by the Australian newspaper, in particular, in June. I recall this particular report. The newspaper reported that student support services were being overwhelmed with appeals for help, with students being referred to the Salvation Army as they found themselves homeless and unable to afford basic necessities.

Further to the case recently involving four international students who sought shelter at a railway station, the Australian Federation of International Students reported a fourfold increase in requests for assistance almost on a weekly basis since the airing of that story. The appeals for help relate to a wide range of issues, which include welfare assistance in regard to issues regarding landlords, food, shelter and homelessness. This is in no small measure due to the exploitative practices to which they have fallen victim. Students should not be forced into working conditions that are not compatible with their existing study commitments, nor should they be forced into substandard living arrangements in order to rectify the wrongs committed by dodgy operators and unscrupulous migration agents.

Australia takes pride in giving everyone a fair go and it is this standard of a fair go that we aim to measure up to. These unscrupulous operators who rob students of their hard-earned work and money have been tried and found wanting. It is clear to us all that the vast majority of our almost half a million international students do receive the high-quality education that you would expect to find in Australia. However, it is these few rogue operators who exploit vulnerable students who ruin it for the vast majority of those institutions that adhere to the required code of conduct that is obviously expected of them.

Considering the highly leveraged and concentrated nature of our overseas student market, we risk losing a large portion of this industry if we fail to act in addressing the concerns that the governments of our supply countries have demanded that we address. We saw what happened to large parts of New Zealand’s export education industry when it failed to adequately address this issue. The government understands the importance of our bilateral relationships and the need to ensure that the concerns of our international trading partners are addressed in line with our own professional standards. As such, I welcome Minister Gillard’s recent announcement of a joint project by our universities to establish a new and innovative Australia-India institute at the University of Melbourne, in partnership with various nationwide universities.

I commend the announcement of the provision of $8 million in federal funding under the government’s Diversity and Structural Adjustment Fund. This project will help ensure that both students and researchers in India, the world’s largest democracy—one of our largest and key sources of international students and a major source of capital for the overseas student market—better understand the nature of Australian society. Not only will this project give our own students and researchers the opportunity to better understand the increasing role of this key emerging economy; it will also further attract more students from abroad to our education and training institutions. The importance of this bill and its attempt to maintain our first-class standards cannot be overstated—nor can our need to reassure our local Indian community here in Australia that we are taking measures to ensure that they do not consider themselves as a constituency targeted for violence or exploitation.

The requirement for all institutions to re-register through the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students addresses the inherent weaknesses in the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000, which have long been exploited by crooked operators. In doing so, the adjustments ensure that the overhaul of the international education sector will address the underlying factors which, by the very nature of the extraordinary growth of this market over the years, have allowed for the industry to operate without adequate regulation and proper oversight. The re-registration process will also ensure that overseas students who come to Australia are able to do so with the full confidence that all registered international education providers and education agents meet the world-class standards that Australia has to offer. It will serve to strengthen the confidence that international students have in our higher education system as well as, importantly, the faith that we as Australians have in all levels of our education system.

The bill recognises where the fault lines of the existing legislation are and serves to address the specific nature of the industry. Considering that 70 per cent of Australia’s international students seek advice through education agents for assistance in their future study endeavours here in Australia, it is important that we increase the confidence that is placed in them. These agents inevitably serve as the gateway to our education system for international students and, as such, it is crucial that the industry is regulated in a manner that is reflective of our standards.

For too long, some have been fixated on the notions of market flexibility as a means to avoid their regulatory responsibilities. This bill will ensure that greater flexibility is directed at administering suspensions effectively. As Professor Denise Bradley, the head of the Bradley review, noted at an Austrade conference held in August in Melbourne:

We have a responsibility to people who come to this country believing they are coming to an education system that is properly managed and regulated … We have a situation in vocational education and training that has allowed the entry of small, totally for-profit operators—where people had no real experience in education. We need to have quite strong oversight of a market like that where there is major growth.

The regulatory mechanisms of the bill recognise that we can no longer allow dodgy agents to place their primary focus on short-term profit ahead of Australia’s long-term interests—and, indeed, the interests of the students who they purport to serve. Events of the recent past have shown that, if this crucial link in the chain of our industry remains unregulated, we risk undermining our entire education services for overseas students. The bill recognises, however, that with effective regulation comes flexibility in how we administer suspensions as well as how we effectively manage the operation of the provisions under provider default.

This is why I am encouraged by the government’s commitment to creating the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, which will be responsible for managing the government’s new regulatory and quality assurance framework. These regulatory mechanisms serve to strengthen the industry and ensure that only those who display both a genuine approach to the provision of services and a demonstrated capacity to provide quality education will be able to meet the requirements for registering to provide education to overseas students. By clarifying the definition of what is in fact a ‘suitable alternative course’, we will improve compliance measures and ensure consistency amongst all levels of government. This will allow for conditions imposed by states and territories on education providers to be nationally recognised through the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students—a mechanism in which all 1,314 institutions will be forced to re-register by the end of next year.

As the Deputy Prime Minister recently noted:

In times when criticisms and problems are raised, it should be clear where lines of responsibility are.

The federal government has recognised that only through a national alignment of the regulatory procedures are we able to build an effective national skills base. By delivering quality as the foundation of Australian education through the regulatory measures outlined in this bill, we will be supporting the interests of students as well as creating a sustainable international education sector. The amendments will restore confidence in our education system and will serve to further attract new students from across the world. This bill is an investment in our education system as much as it is an investment in our nation’s future and our long-term capacity for growth.

As the member for Calwell, I know too well the benefits that multiculturalism brings to the wider Australian social landscape. Calwell, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, boasts a large and vibrant multicultural community that has added immensely to the rich culture of this country. For an egalitarian and inclusive society like Australia, multiculturalism is a central component of what makes us aware of both who we are and what we have to offer to those who come to Australia, as well as what we can learn from them. The recent attacks on Indian students, coupled with the irregularities that are present within the international education sector, have threatened to drive our third most important export market into the ground and of course damage our reputation as a diverse, cohesive and inclusive society.

Having had direct experience with students in the many years in which I was a teacher, I know too well that education is much more than a certificate that is handed down at the end of the school term. Education is a process—it is about the patterns of teaching and learning that make up the whole learning process. We need to protect that process. Apart from the economic opportunities that this market presents for us, the social capital that our students acquire as they sit in classrooms with students from all over the world further adds to their learning experience. I can say through experience and with confidence that it is crucial that we continue to provide our own students here in Australia with these vital opportunities. Universities Australia’s commissioned study released last week confirms this view. Universities Australia chair, Professor Peter Coaldrake, notes:

International education enriches and changes Australian education and deepens relationships between nations. These social and cultural benefits are clearly of paramount importance in a world where international relations are undergoing rapid changes, and where Australia’s future depends critically on its ability to establish diverse and productive international connections.

Whilst some unscrupulous operators may consider it their priority to take advantage of some vulnerable students, the government has shown that Australia’s priority lies in ensuring that the provision of quality education to students who invest so much into our education system is kept at standards that reflect our capacity to deliver world-class education.

I do want in closing to make some comments about the former federal member for Cook, the Hon. Bruce Baird. Having worked with the former member for Cook over the years here in this place and on the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, I would like to take this opportunity to welcome Bruce’s appointment as head of the review into the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000. I know first-hand of Bruce’s sensitivities towards issues of human rights and his commitment to the rights of the individual. Beyond the economic considerations, this is primarily an issue which boils down to those students who have fallen victim to the exploitative practices of predatory agents. The appointment of Bruce Baird reflects the government’s commitment first and foremost to the interests of the nation, above party lines, on an issue which is of concern to us all.

Finally, the bill reflects the government’s strong commitment to ensuring that the full extent of its legislative power is used in sanctioning those that continue to operate beyond the confines of the law. The legislative instrument that the national code provides sends out a strong message to providers—pull up or opt out. Through this bill, international students who choose to come to Australia can rest assured that the Australian government will always continue to serve their best interests, in line with the interests of our own students. In creating a strengthened compliance regime, this amendment bill will go a long way to ensuring that education providers assume their responsibilities and legislative obligations towards all students, whether local or foreign. By effectively regulating our international education sector, the government has gone a long way to ensuring a sustainable and quality-driven education system in Australia that reflects the interests of students. (Time expired)