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Thursday, 24 March 2011
Page: 3172

Mr ALEXANDER (12:03 PM) —I rise to speak on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Bill 2010, the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator (Transitional Provisions) Bill 2010 and the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2011. These bills aim to establish a national vocational education and training regulator to supersede the current state based model. The driving force behind this is to offer consistency across the states in the standards that are enforced and processes that are utilised in the regulation of the vocational education and training sector.

I support the intention of these bills but do not believe that this intent is being achieved through the proposed legislation. The frameworks established to support this regulator are inadequate, and this government should refer these bills back for further consultation so we can make sure the best outcome is achieved on this important issue.

Australia prides itself on being a multicultural society. To have incidents like Indian students being attacked and Chinese students taken advantage of by unscrupulous boarding house operators flies in the face of the standards we wish to share and the experience we wish visitors to have in our country. Regulation must be implemented in order to protect our national interest, but this must be done correctly, with the right supporting framework, based on a detailed standard of consultation. Strong regulation will help to protect the identity that we cherish, to support our nation’s journey towards greater sophistication.

When speaking on the therapeutic goods legislation amendment bill yesterday I referred to the great role played by our high-tech sector, and in particular by the pharmaceutical industry, and the huge benefit they provide to our economy through investment and employment and to our national health standards through research and development. This industry is just one example of the Australia we wish to create: a country that prioritises higher learning and welcomes those who wish to share that journey. The fully funded students who join us from overseas contribute significantly to our economy and also to the affordability of further education for our own domestic students.

In 2008-09 education contributed more than $17 billion to our export earnings. International higher education students generated a total value-add in the order of $9.3 billion. This is a very significant player in our economy and it is absolutely vital that we ensure the regulatory framework that monitors this sector is built on the right foundations. It has been estimated that each international higher education student studying in Australia contributes, on average, over $50,000 to our economy each year, with the majority of this spent on goods and services.

Many of those who come to our shores to study a certificate or diploma at a registered training organisation then pursue undergraduate or postgraduate degrees at our universities. As a nation, we have a duty of care to these students. Their total experience in our country will have flow-on effects on many levels, and we must ensure our system is regulated in the best manner possible.

An example of the disastrous situation that can occur without an adoption of this kind of duty of care is clearly evident in the electorate of Bennelong. Several weeks ago I joined a protest rally organised by a local group called MARS—Marsfield Against Residential Suffocation. This group brings together residents surrounding Macquarie University who have become increasingly concerned with the number of illegal boarding houses established to accommodate international students, with limited assistance from the university.

Many full-fee-paying students arrive in Australia with little awareness of their rights, and are taken advantage of by the operators of these illegal boarding houses. As a result we have witnessed as many as 15 students sharing a three-bedroom apartment, putting an incredible amount of strain on the supporting infrastructure and surrounding community.

Both MARS and my office have been public in our support of these students and their need for protection from these unscrupulous operators. In this regard, my colleague in the state seat of Ryde, Victor Dominello, introduced a private members’ bill into NSW parliament to provide council with greater inspection powers and to enforce much larger penalties on the illegal boarding house operators. This bill was taken off the table by the Keneally government’s decision to prorogue parliament early. However, with all going well for Victor and the coalition in Saturday’s election, this will hopefully be introduced as a government bill in the near future.

In support of this I have said in this place once before that it is my belief that universities should be obligated to offer reasonable and affordable accommodation to all first-year overseas students, providing them with a chance to establish themselves, to make friends and to understand the options and protections that are available to them. This simple effort as part of a broader duty of care would lead to untold benefits resulting from a much improved Australian experience.

This local example highlights the fundamental need to ensure that we get these bills right. The intended changes in these bills are to shift responsibility for vocational education and training regulation from the states and territories to the Commonwealth. This is a positive start; however, in order to achieve the desired results, these changes must be based on consultation and the agreement and cooperation of all the states. What point is a national system if some states do not participate, and retain their own state based regulatory arrangements?

It is almost comical that the government’s lack of consultation has led to a situation somewhat reminiscent to that faced by the founders of our Federation over 110 years ago. The COAG processes are designed to resolve these prior to the implementation of national schemes, rather than having rogue states operating under their own rules on issues as important as health and education. The serious concerns raised by stakeholders at the lack of consultation on these bills led to the referral of this legislation to a Senate committee, which received numerous submissions that raised the same uneasiness with this particular legislation.

The coalition remains broadly supportive of the intent of a national regulator, but to date New South Wales is the only state that has passed legislation referring their powers to this national body. Victoria and Western Australia have refused outright to sign up, citing concerns over the maintenance of responsibility for the regulation of their state funded training institutions. These are legitimate concerns that must be resolved before these bills are debated by this parliament.

Victoria is right to argue for consistency in the implementation of these bills, with the regulatory responsibility sitting alongside the funding responsibility, just as this government has argued for the proposed establishment of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. The Victorian government has also raised concerns regarding the national standards being ‘vaguely expressed’. Perhaps this is a result of the rushed manner in which these bills have been introduced—a criticism shared by none other than the Australian Education Union. As a result of these concerns the uncertainty that is now rippling through the regulation of this important industry has led to a situation whereby the regulators in South Australia, Tasmania and Queensland will continue to operate alongside the national regulator until all the states reach agreement and they have time to catch up. During this time each state will still require their registered training organisations to maintain state registration. This situation is less than ideal, and the coalition is concerned about the doubling up of regulatory obligations as a result.

We urge the Gillard government to return to the consultation process so that the most effective model can be built for the development of this important body—leading to a truly national vocational education and training regulator that addresses the concerns of states, of unions and of all other stakeholders.