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Monday, 19 October 2009
Page: 10137

Mr MURPHY (5:58 PM) —I rise in support of the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009. This bill, in conjunction with recent changes to our migration legislation, works to strengthen and improve the quality of Australian education for international students. By ensuring that the necessary checks and balances are in place, we can be more confident that the quality of education provided to international students is the same high quality they expect from an Australian institution. The bill also serves to demonstrate to the international community that we are serious about providing quality education to our international students.

I acknowledge the comments by Professor Bradley that were published in the Australian on 27 August 2009 highlighting the Australian government’s ‘responsibility to the people who come to this country believing they are coming to an education system that is properly managed and regulated’. This is exactly what we are seeking to redress with this bill. I am confident that the bill will work to immediately improve accountability and service while thorough and comprehensive reviews are conducted by both COAG and Hon. Bruce Baird, the former member for Cook.

Recent figures show that international education is Australia’s third biggest export industry contributing some $15 billion annually to our economy. However, this export has more than a purely financial benefit for our country. I reiterate the comments of the Deputy Prime Minister in her address at the opening of the International Student Roundtable on 15 September this year where she highlighted that since 1950 ‘More than a million international students have become ambassadors for this country’. It is clear therefore that the long-term benefits to Australia of an Australian education for overseas students are the invaluable benefits in trade, foreign affairs and cultural understanding that we will see for many years into the future. The international students that we welcome to Australia and train today can become invaluable ambassadors for our country in the future. However, I acknowledge that the excellent reputation that we have built has been somewhat damaged by the recent spate of media reports highlighting the irregular practices of a very small number of education providers. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 16 July 2009 the experiences of a student who advised that ‘his cooking college had no kitchen for months and when it was finally installed, no running water’. The article went on to detail another’s experience where he ‘could not complete his IT course because his school did not have enough computers or licensed software’. This is not what we expect or even tolerate from our providers. Instead, reports such as these have served to strengthen the government’s commitment to tightening the regulation of education providers. It is providers such as these that are targeted by the bill we are debating.

However, this bill goes further than simply improving regulation and services onshore. It also requires the registration of education agents who operate overseas on behalf of these education providers. These agents are largely responsible for placing overseas students in an Australian course. The registration of these agents will help ensure that those who are promoting Australian education options to overseas students are doing so in a manner which is honest and transparent. Therefore, the bill is also about accountability not only for local providers but for these overseas agents.

I am pleased that, in addition to this bill, the government has committed to bring forward a review of the education services for overseas students legislative framework to the 2009-10 financial year, which will be headed by Hon. Bruce Baird. I share the sentiments of Mr Baird when he said in a report in the Sydney Morning Herald of 8 August, 2009:

… the review was critical for securing the long-term credibility of Australian education in the international marketplace.

This is an issue that I have been following closely since a constituent of mine, who runs a vocational education and training college in Sydney, highlighted to me her concerns surrounding the ‘enormous disparity in the quality of teaching, educational facilities and general industry professionalism’ in the vocational education sector. Feedback my constituent has received from students who previously attended courses offered by other providers echoed those concerns raised in the Sydney Morning Herald article of 16 July that I referred to. This feedback includes the observation that in a small number of private colleges:

… the facilities do not provide adequate space, training rooms, appropriately air conditioned rooms or rest room facilities …

My constituent goes on to highlight:

Given that (some) private providers are located in inappropriate premises, students experience overcrowding and are unable to access suitable training and workplace facilities to undertake their course requirements.

My constituent believes that this has occurred because of ‘inadequate quality control’. I am cognisant that earlier changes to migration legislation by the Howard government led to enormous growth primarily in the vocational education sector. It appears that this growth was largely due to a perception that studying in Australia was an easier path to permanent migration. This, unfortunately, allowed providers to operate to maximise profit by linking a permanent visa to completion of their course. Less attention was paid to the quality of the training program on offer. I too share my constituent’s concern that many international students were previously ‘too reluctant to come forward and raise genuine service delivery concerns due to cultural, linguistic and monetary concerns’.

It is my belief that this bill will improve quality control and that additional measures being introduced, such as a hotline for students to raise concerns, will also help to address my constituent’s and the wider community’s concerns. We want to leave a good impression for students who study in our country. We derive an enormous amount of export revenue from students who choose to study at our universities, TAFEs and colleges and we have some of the best learning institutions in Australia.

Furthermore, changes made to the critical skills list earlier this year have contributed to reducing the perception that studying in Australia will allow someone to circumvent the immigration system and gain permanent residency. This government is not about to allow that. We are determined, Mr Deputy Speaker, as you would have noticed in the media over the last few days, to protect our borders in terms of those people who choose to come to Australia, however they choose to come. It is important for the government to verify the identity of those people who come to Australia. It is important to check the health of people coming to Australia who are seeking to visit our country, whether short term or long term. And of course, most importantly, it is important to consider national security before people can come to our country. That is the bottom line in respect of anyone who comes into our country.

This bill, coupled with the recent roundtable for international students held here in Canberra, shows that we are committed to restoring our reputation and ensuring the international students we educate today get a quality education, remember Australia fondly and carry this positive experience through into their future dealings in the international marketplace. I am confident that this bill will go a long way to ensuring that our education providers, both public and private, academic and vocational, remain at the top in terms of reputation and quality and that, for many years into the future, students from overseas will choose to come to our country, which has some of the highest standards of education anywhere in the world.