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Thursday, 30 November 2000
Page: 20354

Senator PATTERSON (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs) (9:57 PM) —The government is determined to ensure the integrity and quality of the education and training export industry. We know how important it is. The majority of education providers are bona fide and genuine and are offering very high-quality courses. But we know there are some who are less than scrupulous and they have the potential to bring disrepute to all the industry. We have been pursuing reforms for a considerable length of time. Dr David Kemp announced a review of the act last year. This review was necessary because we inherited a plethora of regulatory problems from the previous government. The ESOS Act 1991 does not provide reliable financial assurance for overseas students nor certainty as to the quality of education provided, nor does it give a whole-of-government approach to an industry that relies on the student visa program. As I said, it has enabled a few unscrupulous operators to threaten this important industry. The package of bills before the Senate, the Education Services for Overseas Students Bill 2000 and related bills, addresses these problems and we believe addresses them effectively.

We have got to understand that this is an extremely important export industry for Australia. Senator Crossin most probably slightly overestimated its value, but she indicated that it was a very valuable export industry. It is worth more than $3.7 billion in revenue to Australia—more than wool and on a par with wheat. It yields benefits to the Australian community of extending our own students' understanding of the global context in which this country is increasingly operating. It provides positive opportunities for overseas students to experience Australian culture and society and to develop linkages here. But all this depends on our addressing the risks posed to the industry and our overseas reputation by poor quality, mismanaged and/or disreputable providers and non bona fide students. As I said, they are a minority, but their conduct can damage all.

These bills before the house will do the following. The ESOS Act 2000 will replace the ESOS Act 1991. It will ensure more reliable financial and tuition assurance for the students. New assurance fund requirements will place collective responsibility for safeguarding students' prepaid fees on the industry. There will be a greater certainty that only providers of quality and integrity operate in this industry. A legally enforceable national code will provide nationally consistent standards for the registration and conduct of registered providers.

A secure electronic confirmation of enrolment system will preclude fraud amongst students seeking student visas and will identify students who do not adhere to the conditions of those visas. The electronic system will provide evidence for scrutinising compliance with the new act and student fees and conditions. There will be new offences and vital new Commonwealth powers to investigate and impose sanctions and remove non bona fide operators from the industry. Changes to the formula for the annual registration charge will ensure that the Commonwealth can take on a more proactive role in addressing the problems facing it.

The consultation with industry on these bills has been extended and intense, and many different views have been put to government by various sectors of the industry, who each have their own interests and views as to how the problems should be addressed. But they support the move to clean up the industry and for legislation to provide the Commonwealth with effective powers and sanctions in order to do this. The government have listened to industry's concerns. We have already addressed many of these through amendments introduced in the House of Representatives. The Senate committee report referred to some matters, such as the keeping of student addresses, and we have amended the bill to clarify that these are to be as supplied by the student. We have listened to the industry as to who they thought should be on the contributions review panel of the assurance fund, and amendments were made accordingly.

I now turn to the migration amendments in this package. The Migration Legislation Amendment (Overseas Students) Bill 2000 contains measures aimed at improving regulation of the education/training export industry and strengthening the integrity of the overseas student program. The first measure provides, in certain circumstances, for the automatic cancellation of student visas by operation of law and a process for the discretionary revocation of an automatic visa cancellation. This is intended to create a more streamlined and effective process for dealing with students who fail to observe their visa conditions by not attending classes or not demonstrating satisfactory academic performance and who do not explain the failure to an Immigration office within 28 days.

I note that the minority report of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education Legislation Committee suggested that consideration should be given to extending this 28-day limit. That was something that exercised my mind when I was working on this bill. Senator Bartlett expressed concern about this. Having talked to the industry about it, I believe that 28 days strikes the correct balance and is a reasonable amount of time for a student who has been sent a notice under section 20 of the ESOS Act to report to a DIMA office.

It is most probable that we will have this debate again in the committee stage, but Senator Bartlett said, `What happens if they change address?' We have put a requirement on the student to notify the provider when they change their address. We have done that particularly because students are peripatetic, they move around, and one of the problems has been that, when a provider has indicated a student is not complying, the compliance officers cannot find them because they do not know where they are. There has not been a requirement on the student to indicate to the provider where they are. So now they will know where the students are. They ought to know where the students are because there is a requirement within the visa that the student notify the provider. In addition, it is unlikely if a student is on vacation that they will be notified because the student will not be in compliance with the requirements of their course if they are on vacation. The student is not required to leave the country within 28 days. He or she is merely required to report to a DIMA office for the purposes of explaining his or her failure to attend classes or to achieve a satisfactory academic performance.

The government also believes that education providers will not frivolously issue such notices during holiday periods when students may well be out of the country. If a student is away on vacation during recognised vacation periods, as I said, it would be unlikely that an education provider would penalise a student for such an absence. In relation to any other necessary absences, a student can make appropriate arrangements with their education provider so that they are not penalised for such absences. As an additional safeguard, provision has also been made for a student whose student visa has been automatically cancelled to apply for the revocation of that cancellation subject to certain time limits.

I would also like to confirm that, as was noted in the majority report of the committee, steps will be taken to publicise the automatic visa cancellation scheme. I should also add here that, if a student is ill and has a reason why they were not able to respond to DIMA—because they were in hospital—that is taken into consideration and covered. As to the way in which the information will be provided, it is intended to provide education providers and relevant student bodies with appropriate training; to produce an information pack for existing and future students; to place comprehensive information on the World Wide Web; to consult with relevant peak bodies; and to provide a training and consultation process for relevant agencies overseas such as DIMA posts, Australian Education International, Austrade and AusAID.

The second measure empowers Immigration officers to require the production of—and to search for and inspect and, in some cases, seize—relevant records held by education providers. These new powers are to be used where there is reason to believe that the conditions of student visas are not being or have not been complied with. These enhanced search and entry powers will allow the government to monitor more adequately compliance with student visa conditions and thereby strengthen the integrity of the overseas student program. Overall, the entire package of five bills achieves a comprehensive strengthening of a key export industry while at the same time maintaining the integrity which is essential to that industry's future.

We have worked to address the issues that have arisen out of the fact that we inherited a system that really required significant reform. I want to put on the record here that we have been having discussions with the opposition on the amendments that we will see in the committee stage, and I wish to note my appreciation to the Democrats and for Senator Carr, who is taking the bill through on behalf of the Labor Party, for the cooperation we have had in being able to discuss the amendments and work towards achieving a goal of ensuring integrity within the overseas education industry to ensure that we benefit overseas students and that we benefit and maintain the reputation of Australia's overseas education industry.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bills read a second time.

Ordered that consideration of the bills in committee of the whole be made an order of the day for the next day of sitting.