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Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Page: 233

Senator FEENEY (11:07 AM) —I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009. This bill makes adjustments to the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 and introduces processes that will increase the accountability of international education providers under the National Code of Practice for Registration Authorities and Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students, which was introduced in 2007.

I welcome this bill as part of our national effort at both the federal and state levels to ensure the continued success and prosperity of our education export industry. People are sometimes surprised to learn that education is one of Australia’s largest export industries, even when that education is being conducted right here in Australia. We tend to think of an export industry as one that sends something overseas, whether it is wool, coal or opera singers. But the economic effect is the same if people come here from overseas and buy things from us. Tourism in that sense is an export industry but so too is education. Every student who comes here from overseas and spends money on goods and services is contributing to the Australian economy.

This industry is the third biggest for Australia but it is a particularly important industry for my state of Victoria. Education is in fact Victoria’s biggest export industry, earning the state almost $5 billion last year. Victoria is lucky to have some of Australia’s finest universities, including the University of Melbourne, Monash University and RMIT, as well as many fine colleges and secondary schools that welcome and have long welcomed international students into their ranks.

We are also lucky that Melbourne is one of our most livable cities, one of our most multicultural cities and a city that has prided itself on offering a warm welcome to overseas students. Surveys of international students consistently show that the majority are very satisfied with their courses and their living experience in Victoria and that they would recommend Victoria to their friends. Victoria has a reputation as one of the world’s most desirable places to get an education. It is extremely important that we all work to preserve that hard-won reputation.

There are currently more than 160,000 international students studying in Victoria. That is nearly 30 per cent of all the international students in Australia, meaning that Victoria is getting more than its proportional share of the education business. Victoria’s international education industry has almost doubled in the last few years, defying the global downturn. International students in Victoria come from over 100 countries, but the largest markets for our educational services are India, China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Indonesia. There are almost 50,000 Indian students enrolled to study in Victoria, and that is the largest single national component.

Over the past year, two issues have arisen as possible threats to the success of our education industry. The first is the recent spate of violent attacks on Indian students in Melbourne, a subject that I will return to shortly. The second is the increasing problem of students and their families being defrauded by dishonest education providers or let down by incompetent providers. That problem is the subject of this bill.

Like any industry which is both relatively new and growing very rapidly, the education export industry has, unfortunately, attracted a number of operators who are dishonest or incompetent or even both. There have been a number of unfortunate incidents in which students and their families have been defrauded, in which colleges have suddenly closed and students have been left stranded and with no way of either getting their money back or completing their courses. These incidents are publicised in the students’ home countries and that has the further effect of damaging our reputation as a country, damaging the reputation of our education industry and helping our competitors, such as the US, Canada and New Zealand.

This government is determined to put in place a regime that minimises this risk to the success of our education export industry. Last year the government announced that the Hon. Bruce Baird, the former Liberal member for Cook and, before that, a New South Wales state minister, will head a review of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act. In the meantime, this bill will require the re-registration of all institutions currently registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students. They will have a year to re-register. Re-registration of all providers will serve to restore confidence in the quality of the Australian international education sector and to strengthen the existing registration process by reducing the number of high-risk operators currently in or seeking entry to the sector. To weed out such high-risk operators, two new registration criteria are introduced in this bill. First, the provider must have the principal purpose of providing education and, second, the provider must have a demonstrated capacity to provide education that is to a satisfactory standard.

The bill also provides processes that will increase the accountability of international education providers under the National Code of Practice for Registration Authorities and Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students. The bill also makes international education providers’ use of education agents more transparent and more accountable. To become a registered provider of international education services, an operator will need to demonstrate that the services it provides comply with the requirements of the national code. In recommending a provider for registration, the state or territory authorities must also be satisfied that the provider is fit and proper to be registered.

I welcome the provisions of this bill. Safeguarding our export education industry is not just the responsibility of the federal government or of this parliament. The states and territories also have an important role to play. As I have already noted in my remarks, Victoria has a particularly high stake in protecting the reputation of this industry, since it is the largest provider. So I am pleased to see that the Brumby government has already taken firm steps to crack down on bogus and incompetent operators in this field. In 2008 the Brumby government set up a task force to examine these problems. The task force was led by the Parliamentary Secretary for Industry and Trade, the Hon. Marsha Thomson, and was responsible to the Minister for Skills and Workplace Participation, the Hon. Jacinta Allan. The task force included prominent Victorians such as George Lekakis, Chairman of the Victorian Multicultural Commission; Julie Moss, National Chair of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training; and Wesa Chau, from the Australian Federation of International Students.

The task force reported to the Victorian minister in March last year that there was a perception among some full fee paying international students in Victoria that they were being exploited on the one hand and indeed neglected on the other. Some felt they were being treated as cash cows by the industry and some had complaints about service providers and the quality of education they were being offered by some of these providers. These complaints rarely related to Victoria’s major universities or to our many well-established colleges or schools but related mainly to smaller private providers, mainly business and language colleges.

As a result of the task force’s work, Premier John Brumby was able to announce in September a $14 million plan to address the concerns expressed by students and others in the international education industry and to secure that industry’s long-term future. This plan called Thinking Global: Victoria’s Action Plan for International Education is designed to ensure that Victoria will continue to build on its status as a leading destination of choice for international students. The plan includes a $9.8 million commitment for a new International Education Long Term Growth package designed to drive sustainable growth in the sector, $2.7 million for the International Students Connections package to build on existing support services and information provision to international students in Victoria and $1.4 million for the Quality in International Education package, which is designed to ensure that Victoria’s reputation as a world-class study destination is maintained. This last provision is directly relevant to the topic of this bill since it provides for rapid audits of education and training providers who are suspected of engaging in unsound practices.

The Victorian minister, Jacinta Allan, said in September last year that Victoria was determined to maintain the high quality of Victoria’s providers and to improve the services offered to international students. The minister made it clear that rapid audits of suspect providers would be conducted in tandem with Commonwealth government agencies and authorities. The Victorian minister also said that Victoria would build on existing support services and improve information for students about living in Melbourne and would work with the industry to introduce a new student buddy system to support new arrivals in their early months settling into a new country and a new environment.

Victoria is also responding to the other major area of concern in recent times. Of course, I speak of the spate of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne most particularly. All violent attacks on innocent people, whatever the motive, must be and are condemned. The police and state government must do everything they can to stop them. But it is difficult to find out exactly how many of these attacks there have been in Victoria or to determine whether they have been specifically targeted at Indian students. It is possible that some or all of these attacks have been racially motivated, but it is also possible that they are simply a subset of violent attacks on people travelling alone at night on public transport.

For example, in a typical incident in May of last year, four teenagers attacked, robbed and bashed an Indian student who was going home on a Werribee train after working a late shift at KFC. The teenagers from Hoppers Crossing and Tarneit in the western suburbs of Melbourne later faced the children’s court charged with offences including intentionally causing injury, recklessly causing injury and robbery. Was this attack motivated by racism or was it robbery of a person travelling alone on a train at night? It is, unfortunately, impossible for us to know. But the fact is these attacks have happened and they have received a great deal of adverse publicity not only here in Australia but also profoundly in the Indian media. The perception that Melbourne is no longer a safe place for Indian students to come to and study is now widespread in India and is damaging our education industry directly. The Victorian government and the Victoria Police have been working with the Indian student community in Melbourne to stamp out these incidents and to reinforce the fact that, for most students, most of the time, Melbourne is one of the safest places in the world to live, work and study. Victoria has moved to bring in stiffer sentences for attacks that are found to be racially motivated. In September last year Premier Brumby visited India to reinforce this message. Speaking at a college in New Delhi, the Premier said:

... we are doing everything in our power to ensure the actions of a very small and ignorant minority do not undermine our relationship ... and the reputation Melbourne has as one of the safest cities anywhere in the world ...

Speaking about the new sentencing laws, the Premier said:

This is designed to send a message to the community ... that if an assault has occurred because you hate someone because of their colour, their skin, religious belief or language, then that is an additional factor, which will earn you a tougher penalty when it comes to sentencing ...

His visit and his comments were featured on Indian television news bulletins. India is a country with which I have close family connections. In fact, I was there only a few weeks ago and it was very apparent to me that sections of the Indian media are playing up the threat to Indian students in Australia in an irresponsible way. It is fair to say that the manic behaviour of the media does not exist alone in Australia but is a trait shared worldwide. The Indian media were certainly playing up the fact that Indian students were at risk in Australia. That media attention did not occur in a sober or in a factual context, but it is a fact that in the subcontinent of India the message has been spread far and wide by the Indian newspapers and television that there has been a spate of racist attacks in Australia.

We must take on the task not only of dealing with those allegations and dealing with racism if and where it exists but also of making sure the record is accurate. I note that today a news report in AAP reveals that the Victoria Police have made significant progress in at least one of the cases that was particularly high profile. This news report says:

An Indian man who said he was set alight by assailants near his Melbourne home last month accidentally burned himself while torching his car for an insurance claim, police allege.

Jaspreet Singh, 29, of Grice Crescent, Essendon, in the city's north, faced an out-of-sessions hearing early this morning before a bail justice at St Kilda Road police complex charged with making a false report to police and criminal damage with a view to gaining a financial advantage.

The case gained international headlines among a series of attacks by white Australians on Indian nationals in Melbourne.

I leave that report there. I simply make the point that, amidst the hysteria and amidst the allegations, there are cases where these unfortunate incidents are demonstrably not racist attacks. Nevertheless, that does not change the fact that we must move to protect Melbourne’s and Australia’s reputations as destinations for overseas students and, while dealing with those allegations of racist attacks with the utmost seriousness, also keep an eye on reality and the facts on the ground.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Crossin)—Before I call Senator Macdonald, I am going to call Senator Hanson-Young again to move her amendment.