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Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Page: 228

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (10:48 AM) —I rise today to speak to the first legislative acknowledgment that our proud international education reputation is at the crossroads, with revelations of mismanagement, misleading conduct and dodgy agents providing false advice and guarantees to prospective students. Over the last 12 to 18 months, we have seen numerous colleges close across the country and unscrupulous education agents operating purely for profit purposes, taking advantage of young people who simply want to get an education and build their careers and who often want to go back to their homelands and invest in their own communities. We have also seen a lack of transparency at both government and institutional levels. All of these issues have heightened the need for greater monitoring and support of the way in which our entire international student sector and educational institutions interact with government at state and federal levels and, of course, across the different departments—the education department and the immigration department—so as to ensure that we have proper monitoring of all of these issues.

While I was going leave it to the end, I think perhaps this is an appropriate place to flag the idea that, given that the international education sector is Australia’s third largest export, it is time that the full attention of a parliamentary secretary is given to this sector. I urge the government to seriously consider it.

As recently as this week, we have seen the closure of another college. With colleges collapsing right around the country, affecting more than 2,000 students, including those in my home state of South Australia, it is clear that the government must step up and toughen business regulations and corporate law so that it is not so easy for providers to simply close the doors when it suits them. Providers should have to acknowledge the effect of such closures on the lives of students who are now sitting in limbo. Many of these students have paid thousands and thousands of dollars in fees. Many of them have spent even more money getting to Australia in order to take this educational opportunity. We need to acknowledge that these students not only need to be supported and helped through this process but should be given some more guarantees that, when they choose Australia as the place to come to for study, they will also be looked after.

The Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009 seeks to amend the Education Services Overseas Students Act 2000. Things have changed a lot since the year 2000. We know that the education sector has boomed in terms of the international student market. We know that the numbers in the last financial year rose by 19.6 per cent—that is a significant growth in one financial year. It is time that we seriously reconsider how we manage, regulate and protect this important sector, let alone the young people who rely on it. We know that we need to do more to promote students’ services in these institutions. There are stories of colleges that have not been particularly upfront with students about their engagement in their education, how they are able to put that education into practice, what types of services they should expect to be provided to support them through their educational career and what to expect and where to go to when a college closes. There are lots of stories of students who were not be able to access the right information and who did not have access to the services they needed to get the best value for the thousands of dollars they were spending here, in Australia.

We should be proud that we have had a reputation as an outstanding international education system here in Australia and we need to be doing more now to protect that reputation, not simply brushing it under the carpet. I am thankful that the government has finally seen the light and decided to do something about tackling this problem by asking colleges to reregister. That is obviously what this bill goes to the heart of, but it does not necessarily deal with all of the concerns and all of the problems that lie within the sector. There is much more work to be done than simply asking colleges to reregister.

The fact that Australia’s international sector has grown by 19.6 per cent in the past financial year highlights the importance of tightening the regulatory frameworks within the ESOS Act to ensure that we are providing the best possible educational experience for students studying here in Australia. We want students to finish their educational experience in Australia and to go and tell the rest of the world what a good opportunity it was, to feel proud about being able to study here in Australia and to tell their friends that Australia is the best place to come and study—that you get a good educational experience and you get a good student experience while you are here. In order for us to do that, we need to make sure we put in the attention and protections that those students deserve.

It is important to note that, while the university sector originally accounted for the initial growth in international students, since 2005 enrolments in the VET sector have grown significantly and within the last 12 months we have seen an increase of 39.3 per cent. That is really significant—almost a 40 per cent increase just in the VET sector. Of course, this is something we now need to be turning our attention to. It is very interesting to see the correlation with the childcare sector, which became privatised and corporatised and expanded without the proper regulatory frameworks, and we saw what happened with the ABC Learning collapse. It is quite similar to what we are seeing happen now in the international education sector, except that we know the stories that are coming out are far more serious, and we need to acknowledge that and do things to fix it.

While this legislation is a welcome commitment by the Rudd government to reforming the international education sector, the Greens do hold concerns that this bill fails to adequately target the problem areas within the sector, with many areas such as student safety and welfare not included in the initial legislative response. I would really like to see a more speedy response from the government on these issues. The major criticism of the current act is the lack of guidance given in the definition of what appropriate support for students should be. The act simply says that they need to provide support; it does not say what that needs to look like. We really need to see more guidance in this area to ensure that providers do understand their obligations and responsibilities.

Australia’s thriving international education sector has come under local and international media scrutiny over the last few months following a series of reports surrounding violent attacks, particularly on Indian students. This follows calls for better assistance and support for international students that have until now really fallen on the deaf ears of successive governments and opposition parties. Since then, an intense spotlight has been placed on our international education sector, with issues such as visa exploitation and discrimination within employment, student safety, questionable information provided by education and immigration agents and the substandard educational services and support provided by some providers who simply have not really understood what their responsibilities should be in ensuring that students get value for their dollar in terms of not just education but also their experience.

According to statistics from the Australian Education International monthly summary of international student enrolment data, as at June 2009 there were 467,407 enrolments of full-fee international students in Australia on student visas, compared to half as many in June 2002. This is a significant growth and that is why we now need to step up our response to ensure that our regulations and our legislation are apt in dealing with these problems.

There are two new registration requirements under this bill. Item 5 of schedule 1 of the bill states that the provider must be able to demonstrate that their principal purpose is providing education and that they have clearly demonstrated their capacity to provide education of a satisfactory standard. Of course, how do we then decide who we monitor first? While this requirement is fair and reasonable, there seems to be no further detail on how these areas will actually be assessed in a practical sense. While the Minister for Education has stated in her second reading speech that breaches of the national code can result in enforcement action under the act, the Greens remain concerned about the capacity to properly monitor and enforce breaches of the act and the national code without fundamental changes to the regulatory framework.

Time after time, international students said during the inquiry run by the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations last year that they felt that the government continued to monitor them more closely than the activities of the education providers. Time and time again, students told stories of being caught because they were forced to work half an hour over the 20-hour work limit while their education provider was not providing the quality of education that they should, yet where was the monitoring and compliance of the international education providers? It is time for us to really consider how we protect our international education sector by not only ensuring that we require a reregistration of all of these providers but also ensuring that we continue to monitor the types of education they are providing and that those who do breach the code of conduct are actually dealt with and that that code of conduct is enforced.

One of the key issues that has been raised by international students and their respective communities is the lack of support provided to students in these educational institutions. Students want to be able to raise issues and question the quality of education and services that they are getting, but they do not know who to go to. There is no real clear avenue of advocacy for them. Given the proposed bill requires that all providers demonstrate their capacity to provide education of a satisfactory standard, the Greens would like to see a commitment through this legislation that this new registration requirement will also require providers to demonstrate that they have a capacity to provide and define adequate student support.

There is no use in simply re-registering education providers if you do not then allow students that support. We need to ensure that if the education is not up to standard then those students have an avenue for advocacy. Obviously we recognise that the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 that is currently waiting to come back before the parliament would provide some of this support to students. But we are concerned that in the VET dominated sector this issue is perhaps not looked after. We need to see government come up with an alternative where student support and advocacy are fundamental requirements and are provided to international students at all institutions, not just to those studying at traditional universities.

I have said that the re-registration of all institutions is going to be a mammoth task. We believe that the bill could be better targeted to ensure that we are able to prioritise the high-risk areas first and foremost so that we can avoid further collapses such as we have seen this week. Given that the main intention behind the requirement for all education providers to re-register by December 2010 is to restore confidence in the quality of education services for all international students, the Greens are concerned that this provision is not appropriately targeted. While the actual process for re-registration is yet to be formalised, we believe that a more targeted approach that would prioritise high-risk areas of the sector is more appropriate and practical when dealing with the current turmoil in Australia’s international education sector. We need to target and be more strategic in how we do this over the next 10 to 12 months. We cannot allow colleges to collapse, leaving students on the street, simply because we have not got to them yet. We need a practical response. That means indicating which of these areas is high risk.

In discussing re-registration requirements, the Greens also believe that, while it is beyond the scope of this particular piece of legislation, an independent education commission or an ombudsman should be established to define the minimum standards for student support, information and advice provision. This should be available to students on a national level so that they know who to go to. If they have concerns and are questioning the quality of service at an institution, they will have somebody they can go to. It is simply not good enough for the education department to provide a 1800 number; we need somebody to give this the full attention it deserves.

An important requirement contained within this bill is the stipulation that a registered provider must  maintain a list of persons, whether within or outside Australia, who represent or act on behalf of a provider in dealing with overseas students or intending overseas students. While the Greens are indeed supportive of this measure—and we think that registration is an important factor for all agents—we believe it should go further and ensure that all education agents, whether operating onshore or offshore, are properly registered. Quality benchmarks should be set at a national level to spell out what is considered adequate information or advice. There is a clear need for sufficient monitoring of education agents operating on behalf of institutions right throughout Australia. As such, we would like to see the government commit to introducing rigid education agent and provider protocols. These need to be developed to pave the way for a more transparent system of monitoring the activities of agents and providers into the future and to avoid the occurrence of the dodgy behaviour that we have heard reports of over the last few months. We need to ensure that students do not get caught out simply because they do not know any better.

The Greens also believe that it is paramount that, where a provider has failed to fulfil its education commitment, students are able to enrol in an equivalent course as soon as possible and that they do not incur any additional costs to do so—given that they have often already paid thousands of dollars in course fees. While we recognise that item 6 of the bill allows for regulations to prescribe the criteria for considering whether a course is a suitable alternative for a student where a provider can no longer offer a particular course, we also believe that in legislating for this requirement there must be a requirement to provide students with access to their full and accurate academic transcript. Of course, where there is not the ability for a student to be enrolled in a similar course then we need to consider refunding the course fees and other costs associated with attending the institution that has collapsed.

We are concerned that the current investment in the ESOS Assurance Fund is not significant enough. We are concerned that, as was raised by the opposition, those funds are currently depleted. We cannot get to the bottom of exactly how much money is in there, but we know that students are not able to get access to all the refunds that they deserve. We have seen that in the Sterling College example and other cases. I would hate to think that the 2,000 students who are out on the streets today because of the collapse of GEOS over the last few days might be left not only without another course to go to but without the refund of their fees. We need to look at this matter urgently.

It is clear that the students themselves are the worst affected by this worrying flux in the sector, experiencing distress due to the uncertainty around their educational, financial and immigration status. They are put in limbo when these collapses happen. The students that I have spoken to are not just concerned that they cannot get into another course; they do not know whether they are going to be accepted for prior learning in another course. They do not know how much money they will get back from their other associated costs. They are also unsure of their visa status now that they are not enrolled. These are the concerns and anxieties of international students who are caught when a college collapses. We need to do more to ensure that we give some guarantees to these young people. One of the best ambassadors that Australia can have when promoting our international education program is the satisfied international student who goes home and tells their friends that Australia is the place to come to study, not just for the quality of the education but for the overall experience. That is what we need to be putting our energy into and giving our attention to.

I think it is time that the government seriously consider implementing a parliamentary secretary role for the international education sector. This is Australia’s third largest export. It deserves the full attention of government. It is not good enough to have knee-jerk reactions when things go awry. We need to be doing more to prevent these crises happening in the future. We need to do more to protect our international education sector, not just for the reputation of international students here in Australia but also for the reputation of domestic students when they travel abroad.