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Monday, 19 October 2009
Page: 10134

Mr IRONS (5:49 PM) —Australia is one of the best places in the world to be educated. It is because of this that education is Australia’s third largest export, worth $15.4 billion to the Australian economy in 2008 alone. There are many other areas in our society which benefit from this industry. The Colombo Plan, introduced under the Menzies government in 1950, was the beginning of international student education in Australia. Today, Endeavour Scholarships provide opportunities to students from across the Asia-Pacific. Many students that have studied in Australia have gone on to be leaders in their own countries, and the contacts and relationships they forged as young students have proved of invaluable benefit to our nation. Not only have we forged stronger links with many countries across the globe but for each international student the contribution to the Australian economy is approximately $29,000 per annum.

Australia’s high standard of education draws students from all over the world. It is important that our institutions continue to maintain their reputations as reliable and high-quality education providers internationally. In my home state of Western Australia, international students and the education industry make a significant contribution to the state economy. International students are estimated to contribute $860 million to the Western Australian economy. Curtin University of Technology, which sits within my own electorate of Swan, is highly regarded in the international market and has developed long-term relationships with over 30 education providers in the Asia-Pacific region. Curtin recently announced a proposal to build a new medical school to address both local and international health needs. According to a 2006 World Health Organisation report, there is a global shortage of 4.3 million health care professionals. A 70 per cent increase in healthcare professionals is required to rectify this shortage. Curtin University’s commitment to providing high-quality education, particularly in the important area of health care, is a benefit to Australia and to the world. This is just one part of Australia’s strong reputation as an education-providing nation.

Likewise, in the area of primary and high school education there are a number of schools in my electorate which take on overseas students as boarders. Schools such as Wesley College, Penrhos College and Aquinas College all cater to the specific needs of international students in primary and secondary education. As recently as 5 August I visited Wesley College, and even more recently, on 27 August, I visited Penrhos College to see the programs they are running there.

These schools rely, in part, on their reputation as quality education providers to attract international students to Australia. They continue to work hard at maintaining and improving that reputation. Our reputation is abundantly important in this area. We may not realise how important word of mouth is for this sector of the economy. Good reputations take years of hard work to build, and in the case of educational institutions and our national reputation it takes generations. While it takes years to build good reputations, they can come crashing down in a matter of seconds following a single event, a slip-up or even an uncontrollable event. What may seem to be a small or minor incident can do untold damage to the reputations of our educational institutions.

Following a series of violent crimes against international students, the security and safety of international students appeared threatened. While the threat to individual safety was no more or less a threat to international students than to all Australians, perception is everything when we are talking about reputation. These incidents made international headlines, and universities needed to take action to reassure international students that their safety was not threatened if they chose to study in Australia.

Australia’s international reputation as a reliable provider of education services is under threat for a second time. Issues have arisen that could damage our reputation. If these issues go unanswered, there is a real risk that Australia will see a decline in international enrolments, which is not only damaging to the education sector as an industry but also dangerous to our reputation as a nation. While our schools and universities continue to climb the ranks of international excellence, our reputation is being damaged by the practices of some unscrupulous providers and education agents. Rumours of false promises being made to students who want to come to Australia to study are a risk to our reputation. While most education agents and providers are doing the right thing, the rumours generated by those who are unscrupulous are doing damage. More than 122,000 people are employed in the international education industry in Australia, and it is important that the 122,000 that are doing the right thing do not suffer because of a small group who are not following the rules.

We need to take action to defend the good reputation of our education providers, who, through no fault of their own, find Australia’s reputation at risk of being seriously damaged. The way to defend the reputation of our providers is by improving the accountability of not just colleges and education agents but also state and territory regulators. We need to ensure that education agents are providing reliable and up-to-date information to prospective students.

The third concern of the coalition relates to the default fund for reimbursing overseas students if their provider ceases operations. The legislation as proposed falls well short of providing the appropriate assurances for overseas students. That is why the coalition have proposed some straightforward amendments aimed at tightening up the legislation and preventing students being duped by incompetent or dishonest providers. We have introduced amendments aimed at ensuring regulatory bodies follow a risk management approach when determining re-registration of providers. Regulatory bodies are there to regulate. If they are not doing that job properly, there is no point in having them. These amendments are important for ensuring that regulatory bodies are doing their job properly, because ineffective regulation will allow unscrupulous education agents to continue to damage Australia’s reputation as a reliable education provider.

The coalition’s proposal will also improve services by requiring education agents to undertake qualified training. Better trained education agents will make a significant difference to the quality of services provided by these agents to international students and will help to avoid some of the problems that the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009 seeks to address. Given the recent spate of provider closures, the ESOS Assurance Fund must be close to exhausted after constant plundering.

The coalition’s amendments will also seek to improve accountability and transparency of the fund. The fund manager will be required to provide the Minister for Education 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. Financial accountability is highly important, and ensuring that the ESOS Assurance Fund is properly managed is an important part of that process of accountability. It is very important that anyone dealing with another person’s money be held to account, whether they be the manager of a fund or a government.

These amendments are needed in order to tidy up this legislation. It is essential that we maintain and improve our reputation as an international education provider. Our schools and universities are doing their bit, and it is up to us to get to the heart of the issue by improving training, improving accountability and improving risk management. Our amendments seek to achieve this and to make sure that this legislation actually does what it claims it sets out to do. The legislation needs to be tightened up and these amendments are the first step in the process of doing that. Further amendments may be likely in the near future, depending on the Baird review, which is yet to report. There is a Senate committee focusing on the welfare of international students and one that is specifically looking at this legislation, and I believe that report was tabled today. Once these reports are received, further amendments may be needed to tighten the legislation. I recommend the bill to the House, with our amendments, but I specify that we must not make it tougher for the education providers that are doing the right thing.

While we are on education, I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate my son, Jarrad, who completed year 12 today. He and his schoolmates finished school today, so I guess they will be taking advantage or creating hay at the school before they leave at the end of the week.

Mr Dutton —Will they be home listening to this, do you think?

Mr IRONS —I hope so. At least he has achieved something that his father never achieved, which is to complete year 12. As he moves into adulthood, I wish him all the best to pursue his dreams and to live a long, prosperous and healthy life. As I advise all young people, I now tell him: do not be afraid to seek the truth, particularly when it comes to politics. Congratulations, Jarrad.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr AJ Schultz)—Good advice, and well done!