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Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Page: 225

Senator CORMANN (10:33 AM) —We are debating the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009 in the wake of yet another collapse of a private training college servicing overseas students. This follows a number of closures and a series of other training college related controversies throughout 2009. Indeed, it is fair to say that, under the Rudd Labor government’s watch, the situation with our private international training colleges has really turned into a very unsatisfactory situation which is seriously impacting on our reputation overseas and on thousands of overseas students who find themselves stranded across Australia in the context of some of these closures.

It is a very unsatisfactory circumstance which, all the way back in August last year, the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said she had a plan to do something about. Two days before she announced her visit to India, where she went to have talks with various organisations and the Indian government, she rushed this legislation into the parliament, only to have it linger here for the last six or seven months. There has been absolutely no progress on this legislation for six or seven months, even though the minister very quickly got this legislation introduced so that she could put out a press release and tell the world how she was going to meet with the Indian government and discuss with them the Rudd government’s ‘recent moves’ to improve the quality of education for overseas students in Australia—very recent indeed. This was to include the re-registration of education providers for overseas students and the review of the act which was undertaken by the Hon. Bruce Baird and the international students roundtable in September.

The closure of a college on Monday this week, according to reports, has resulted in more than 2,300 students across Australia finding themselves stranded. Imagine students from Switzerland, Brazil, Colombia, Italy, Germany and France phoning their parents and friends to tell them what it is like to attend an English language training college in Australia. There is no guarantee—even though you have paid $10,000 and paid for accommodation and even though Australia has a reputation as a serious and reliable country. All of a sudden they find themselves facing eviction from their accommodation and no access to the training they have purchased. We have had this legislation lingering in the parliament since August last year. Clearly, the government did not give this sufficient priority; otherwise, the processes that are to be put in place by this legislation could be well underway by now.

This is an important, albeit long overdue, bill. The coalition does intend to support it with amendments which we believe will improve the bill. In its current form we do not believe it will achieve the objectives that the government says it is trying to achieve with this particular legislation. I note that as a result of the speed with which the bill was introduced, even though it has progressed very slowly since then, there was very minimal consultation by the minister. Considering that re-registration will be carried out by state training authorities, we are somewhat surprised that there was no meaningful consultation with state training authorities to ensure that all of the ducks were properly lined up and that all the i’s were dotted and the t’s crossed. But that is what we have come to expect from this government.

It is important to remind ourselves that we are talking about Australia’s third-largest export industry—$15.5 billion in export revenue—and our largest services industry export. There is clearly much at stake: both the tangible benefits that Australia receives through sharing its educational expertise and the less tangible benefits such as improving its reputation as a quality source of education services. A Senate inquiry canvassed some of the issues that need to be addressed in relation to the quality of providers and to student safety and support networks, as well as to some of the immigration related issues. I commend the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee on the quality of that report.

This bill goes some way towards addressing the concerns I have just raised, but not as comprehensively as we on this side of the chamber would like; hence the amendments that we have previously circulated, which aim to give more substance to the government’s response. This bill focuses on education providers—institutions that are registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students. They will have to be re-registered by 31 December 2010. Those re-registered providers will also be required to list the names of their agents and to ensure that those agents comply with regulations relating to them and their conduct. It is a good start, but we think that we will be coming back into this chamber, having these discussions from time to time as problems like the one we experienced earlier this week play themselves out across Australia. What we need is a more serious and more long-term rethink, rather than just another ‘quick, slow fix’. There is, of course, an inherent tension between jurisdictions: between the federal regulation and oversight of migration matters and the state regulation and oversight of institutions of higher learning. Perhaps that is a subject for some rethinking and reform down the line. As often happens, the two branches of government do not necessarily have the same objectives and as a result we have to make do with uneasy compromises and try our best to balance those competing interests. In addition, both the Commonwealth and the states share some responsibilities regarding the quality control, regulation and oversight of those institutions. Until such time as these jurisdictional issues are properly resolved in a more comprehensive and logical manner we have to make do with a piecemeal and ad hoc process of reform.

The coalition will offer two amendments to this bill. Firstly, we will seek to enshrine risk management principles in the legislation, thus pushing the states to commit to a more vigorous auditing regime during the re-registration process. These risk management principles ought to include a focus on the financials of the various education facilities. The process has to look at factors such as the accreditation level of the staff employed, the length of operation of the various providers and so on. Secondly, we note the Greens’ foreshadowed second reading amendment, which we intend to support in part, which sets out the prioritisation with which some of the re-registration process ought to happen. Clearly, there ought to be a prioritisation of the process of re-registering providers. Essentially, re-registration ought to happen with particular regard to where:

                    (i)    the provider has a high proportion of students from a single country;

                   (ii)    the provider offers only a limited number of education programs;

                  (iii)    the provider has had a rapid increase in enrolments in the recent past;

                  (iv)    the provider has previously breached the national code;

                   (v)    there is a history of visa fraud in relation to student visa applications relating to the provider’s education programs ...

We support that. The reality is that some education providers are attracting students not so much for the education outcome but for the migration outcome that their students might seek to achieve. That is not a satisfactory situation and that is something that will need to be addressed moving forward.

Something that we are very concerned about on this side of the chamber, and which I hope the government is going to address in its second reading reply, relates to the Education Services for Overseas Students Assurance Fund. When there is a collapse such as we experienced again earlier this week—the latest in a series of collapses that have happened on the Rudd government’s watch—then the ESOS Assurance Fund that has been established under section 46 of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act should:

... protect the interests of overseas students and intending overseas students of registered providers by ensuring that the students are provided with suitable alternative courses, or have their course money refunded, if the provider cannot provide the courses that the students have paid for.

Now, the ESOS Assurance Fund is a very secretive fund. It is very difficult to get current information in relation to the financial situation of the fund. It is very difficult to ascertain whether the students who have been the victims of this most recent collapse will be able to benefit from the guarantees that are supposed to be provided by this fund, because the most recent publicly available information only goes to 31 December 2008.

In the year to 31 December 2008, the ESOS Assurance Fund made a loss of $1.3 million. The cash and cash equivalents in the fund had reduced from $3.7 million in 2007 to $1.8 million by 31 December 2008. We are now at the beginning of 2010. To date, we have not received any information about where the financials of the ESOS Assurance Fund stood at the end 2009. I would be interested to hear from the minister whether 2009 has been as difficult and as challenging a year from a financial point of view as the previous year. I suspect that it may have been, given some of the closures and other problems that occurred last year. If the fund had another year like 2008, when it lost $1.3 million, we on this side of the chamber suspect that it might just about run dry and, with what has been happening out there in the world of training colleges, this would be a very serious concern. It would certainly be a concern for many of the students who have now been left to wonder ‘Where to from here?’ after the most recent collapse of a private international training college.

The second amendment that the opposition will be pursuing concerns education agents. The amendment focuses on ensuring that all education agents have at least received training and are aware of Australian requirements regarding matters such as attendance, work permits and migration et cetera. This, in turn, means that they should be able to pass on information to potential students. In short, we think that there is a need to professionalise education agents. The overall effect of the amendment is intended to be a bit of crackdown on dodgy agents and shaky institutions whose actions harm overseas students, damage our reputation overseas and make it more difficult for the overwhelming majority of professional and respectable providers to provide education and for agents to carry on their useful work as intermediaries between our education institutions and potential students from overseas.

In summary, we support this legislation. We support what the government is trying to achieve by it. We think that the government has dragged its feet a bit, given what appeared to be a certain degree of urgency back in August. Clearly, the government did not prioritise this legislation appropriately last year and wasted a lot of time in this chamber on a whole series of other matters that were never going to go anywhere. This was something that needed to be addressed. We do not think that the legislation in its current form is quite going to achieve what the government intends it to achieve. We do hope that the government will take a longer term look, once the Baird review has reported on some of the reforms that might need to be pursued. In the meantime, there is a very particular concern on our side of the parliament about the current financial situation of the ESOS Assurance Fund, which we would like the government to address during the debate today. With those few words, I conclude the contribution on behalf of the opposition.