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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5678

Senator TIERNEY (10:59 AM) —I rise to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment Bill 2002. This bill underpins one of the great export success stories of the Australian economy over the last 15 years. The whole education export industry is a sign that a country as intellectually rich as ours—one in which there is a very high level of education and training—can, in the new information age, develop past the primary and secondary stage into the tertiary stage of industrial development and create industries that support jobs and growth in our economy. Since I have been in this place there has been remarkable growth in this industry.

When I first came into the parliament in 1991, this was a $700 million industry and it is now a $4 billion industry. It is very important that the parliament should get right the legislative underpinning of such an important export industry. The development of this legislation has had an interesting history. The first piece of legislation was brought in in 1991, under the Labor government and Minister Dawkins, who had considerable concerns about operations of some of the private colleges that were not delivering quality or value. At that time, he gave reasons as to why this industry needed this sort of legislation. In the parliament in 1991, discussing the export of education services, he said it was:

... a major industry, one which is already making an enormous contribution to Australia and is already extending Australia's influence as a provider of education and training services throughout the region

... ... ...

We do not need to go back to the old rules, which prevented students coming here at all. We can manage this program and deal with the problems as they arise ...

The legislative history of ESOS—the overseas student legislation—is one of managing the problems as they arise. The original legislation was quite draconian and, as I mentioned, it was a $700 million industry which has now grown to a $4 billion industry. But it would have been cut off in its prime if the original legislation, designed by the former Labor government, had gone through at that time.

It was a very short bill, and it was the first bill I ever had to deal with when I came into this place. The education committee then was chaired by Terry Aulich with Karin Sowada, leading for the Democrats, and me for the Liberals. We were all horrified by this piece of legislation. We conducted an inquiry into the eight-page bill and suggested 32 recommendations to change it. At the end of the day the minister accepted that, because he realised that he had overreached the proper provisions that were needed for the control of this industry at that time and it would have killed off the industry if those had gone ahead. So a regulatory regime was brought in that was not quite as draconian.

As the industry very rapidly expanded, obviously, problems did emerge and, as Minister Dawkins originally said, `We will manage the program and deal with the problems as they arise.' There have been five amendments to the bill over time. As this industry develops and evolves and problems emerge, we have to manage them by adjusting the legislation and the provisions to try to get the balance between providing a system of education for overseas students that, in the first instance, provides quality and, in the second instance, provides a driver for our economy. Those are the goals that we are trying to achieve.

For the most recent changes that were made a few years ago, I would like to pay special tribute to Senator Kay Patterson, who at that time was the parliamentary secretary to the minister for immigration and multicultural affairs. She did major work to get the education bureaucrats and the migration bureaucrats to work together in a much more harmonious and consistent way and actually put in place changes that solved a number of problems that were developing in the industry as it evolved.

I was on the migration committee in the mid-1990s in Cairns when we picked up the fact that the two departments were not working very well together. They were working in their own little silos and they really needed to work in a very cooperative way to make sure that the migration and the education aspects of these problems were being dealt with in a consistent way. Senator Patterson did a marvellous job in bringing that together and developing a regime which solved a lot of the difficulties that were arising. Of course, we now have a new piece of legislation and we welcome the fact that the Labor Party is supporting that legislation. It does strengthen the act further and, as Senator Carr mentioned, there will be a review later this year and further changes might be made then.

In reference to the new changes, Dr Brendan Nelson, the Minister for Education, Science and Training, has said:

Ambiguities will be removed and greater clarity provided with regard to certain sections relating to Commonwealth powers and sanctions of the ESOS Act. These measures all contribute to providing greater certainty for the Australian education and training export industry.

We do have a much better regime: problems have been raised and responded to. In such a complex industry, which is privately provided, I suppose that you are never going to solve all the problems. But, through the processes of the parliament, I think we are just about at the point where we have finetuned the legislation so that it complements and supports a great Australian export industry. It is industries like this that are the hope of the future. I think this parliament has played a major role in helping it flourish, thus not only assisting in the education of students that have come from overseas but also giving great underpinning and support to an export industry and, therefore, to the entire Australian economy.