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Thursday, 14 September 2006
Page: 27


Senator SANDY MACDONALD (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (10:36 AM) —I move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

NATIONAL CATTLE DISEASE ERADICATION ACCOUNT AMENDMENT BILL 2006

The National Cattle Disease Eradication Account Amendment Bill 2006 (the bill) will enable residual cattle and buffalo industry levies, collected under the bovine tuberculosis and bovine brucellosis eradication campaigns, to be transferred to a more broadly based industry disease fund.

For many years the cattle and buffalo industries have contributed, through levies, to the National Cattle Disease Eradication Account (NCDEA). These funds were used in initiatives to eradicate brucellosis and tuberculosis, most recently through the Tuberculosis Freedom Assurance Program (TFAP). Successive campaigns have resulted in both diseases being considered to be eradicated in Australia. This is a major achievement that other countries are unable to claim and a shining example of government and industry partnership.

As the Tuberculosis Freedom Assurance Program (TFAP), will conclude on 31 December 2006, the cattle and buffalo industries have requested that residual funds in the National Cattle Disease Eradication Trust Account are transferred into the more broadly focused Cattle Disease Contingency Fund (CDCF).

The Cattle Disease Contingency Fund is a trust fund that was established in 2002 by the cattle industry and Animal Health Australia (AHA), in order to fund various animal health activities which are to the benefit of the cattle industry in Australia. The funds may be used for a number of specified purposes, including prevention, eradication and control of endemic or exotic cattle diseases, research and other animal health activities likely to benefit the Australian cattle industry.

In comparison to the NCDEA, there is significantly greater scope for the application of funds held in the CDCF. The increased autonomy and flexibility in the use of the levy monies will strengthen the cattle industry’s ability to address biosecurity issues, to conduct research and risk mitigation activities and to respond to incursions of exotic diseases.

The bill amends the current National Cattle Disease Eradication Account Act 1991 to add a clause that will enable payments to be made from the Trust Account to the CDCF. The bill also includes the addition of a clause that clearly defines the CDCF for the purposes of the Act.

The bill enables funds remaining after the successful completion of the brucellosis and TB programs to be used in the ongoing work of building a strong biosecurity framework for the Australian cattle industry. It will further help maintain the competitiveness of Australia’s agricultural industries through an outstanding animal health status.


EDUCATION SERVICES FOR OVERSEAS STUDENTS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (2006 MEASURES No. 1) BILL 2006

The Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 (the ESOS Act) and its complementary legislation regulate the international education and training services industry. This ESOS Act was introduced in 2000 to address problems facing the industry: the uncertain financial protections for students’ pre-paid course fees, the emergence of a small minority of unscrupulous providers and inconsistent quality assurance.

The purpose of the legislation is to ensure that overseas students who come to Australia to study on student visas receive the education and training for which they have paid. It aims to protect the reputation of Australia’s education and training export industry and strengthen public confidence in the student visa program.

The ESOS Act required that an independent evaluation be commenced within three years of its having received Royal Assent. The report of the evaluation was released by the former Minister for Education, Science and Training in June 2005.

The evaluation report found broad industry support for existing arrangements, but made recommendations for improvement. These amendments address some of the evaluation recommendations. As consultation with industry is ongoing, it is anticipated that further amendments will be submitted for consideration in the spring sittings.

All providers who deliver education and training to overseas students must be registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students (CRICOS). It is a requirement of registration that providers demonstrate that they are ‘fit and proper’ to be registered. The ‘fit and proper’ test currently applies to providers and their associates on registration only. These amendments will allow for the ‘fit and proper’ test to be applied, not only on registration, but at any time during a provider’s registration.

To prevent former providers with an adverse history in the industry from taking up positions of influence with other providers, the application of the fit and proper test will be extended from providers and their associates to employees, agents or officers of the provider where these persons have sufficient authority to be assumed to represent the provider in relation to the business of providing courses. Where it is clear that a provider no longer meets the ‘fit and proper’ test, the Act will allow for the suspension of their registration from CRICOS.

These amendments will provide a further guarantee of the credentials of CRICOS registered providers.

The ESOS Act ensures consumer protection for overseas students by placing the primary responsibility with the registered provider. Tuition Assurance Schemes and the ESOS Assurance Fund provide further certainty where the provider is unable to meet their obligations. These amendments will clarify a provider’s obligations in relation to the receipt of course money, and the provision of refunds. Allowing Tuition Assurance Schemes access to student information will facilitate a faster placement of students in alternative courses, where a provider is unable to meet their refund obligations.

Providers contribute to the cost of regulation of the ESOS Act through payment of the Annual Registration Charge (ARC). This is a legislated charge payable by the last business day in February of a year. Automatic suspension of a provider’s registration for failure to pay the ARC by the due date will streamline the enforcement action taken against providers who breach this legislative requirement, and encourage compliance. Further, this amendment, together with those which will require the payment of certain charges before, rather than after, a specified event will reduce time spent by the Department in pursuing providers for outstanding fees, and prevent those providers who do not abide by the rules from remaining in the industry.

In introducing these amendments, the Department has been mindful of the need to avoid unnecessary regulation, given the cost both to the industry and the Australian Government. These amendments will have a minimal regulatory impact on providers, and will streamline processes for the Australian government.

Protection and enhancement of Australia’s reputation for providing reliable and high quality education is crucial to achieving sustainable growth of this important export industry. These amendments will strengthen the regulatory framework and consumer protection provisions of the legislation. They will have the additional advantage of reducing the administration of certain aspects of the ESOS Act.

I commend the bill to the Senate.


EDUCATION SERVICES FOR OVERSEAS STUDENTS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (2006 MEASURES No. 2) BILL 2006

This is the second Bill to implement measures recommended by the independent evaluation of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 (the ESOS Act). It also includes amendments which my Department has identified as necessary to clarify provisions relating to providers’ consumer protection and reporting obligations.

Overseas students considering a study destination are aware that the Australian international education industry is regulated by law. This is a strong consideration when students decide to study in Australia. These measures will further strengthen this regulatory framework and ensure that Australia continues to be a destination of choice for overseas students.

The ESOS Act is currently unclear regarding the refund provisions to apply when a provider excludes a student from study for non-payment of fees, a breach of a visa condition, or misbehaviour. This became apparent in a recent case which involved the reinstatement of certain cancelled student visas. The ESOS Act currently suggests that student default can only occur where a student actively withdraws from a course. Extending the concept of student default to cover those circumstances where a provider excludes a student for certain types of student behaviour will clarify a student’s rights in these circumstances.

Unfortunately, there are a small number of providers in the industry who may take advantage of students who wish to come to Australia to study, but find that they are unable to obtain a student visa. I want to ensure that refund agreements do not punish a student who is unable to obtain a visa. This amendment will prevent withholding prepaid course fees, while still allowing providers appropriate recompense for the administrative work associated with the recruitment of these students.

While consumer protection is an essential feature of the ESOS Act, it is equally important to amend provisions originally designed to protect students, but which have subsequently been found to give students a greater refund than is justified in some cases. The Fund Manager will now be able to reduce the amount of a refund where it can be demonstrated that a student has received academic credit or recognition of prior learning for completed study. This is an important amendment as it will ensure that students are adequately compensated in the event of a provider failing, or ceasing to deliver a course, but will prevent what some in the industry regard as double-dipping, that is, students receiving a refund for education and training which has been received and accepted as credit or recognition of prior learning for a course with a new provider.

The inclusion of a sunset clause of 12 months for calls on the Fund will further enhance the Fund Manager’s ability to manage the Fund’s liabilities, with an associated minimal impact on overseas students.

A strong message from respondents to the ESOS Evaluation was the need to revise the student visa conditions relating to attendance and satisfactory academic performance to bring them into line with current educational practice. Currently breaches of these visa conditions must be reported, and students sent a notice of the breach.

There has been extensive consultation with the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and industry over the past 12 months to reach an agreed approach to the visa conditions which should be monitored and reported on by providers.

The complementary changes to the National Code, the Migration Regulations and the ESOS Act will ensure that providers’ obligations to monitor and report against student visa conditions are in line with current educational practice while continuing to support the integrity of the migration system. Amending the ESOS Act to prescribe the visa conditions which must be reported in the Regulations will ensure that there is no ambiguity for providers as to the nature of their obligations and will allow for ongoing consistency with the Migration Regulations and the National Code.

The ESOS Act and its complementary legislation ensure the quality of education and training provision to overseas students, provide overseas students with consumer protection and maintain the integrity of the student visa system. The amendments contained in the bill will further enhance and clarify the consumer protection provisions and migration integrity aspects of the legislation, as well as introduce amendments of a technical nature to streamline the administration of the Act.

I commend the bill to the Senate.

Ordered that further consideration of these bills be adjourned to the first day of the next period of sittings, in accordance with standing order 111.

Ordered that the National Cattle Disease Eradication Account Amendment Bill 2006 be listed on the Notice Paper as a separate order of the day.