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Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Page: 240

Senator WORTLEY (11:41 AM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009 and, unlike the previous speaker, Senator Macdonald, I intend to address the substance of the bill, because it is a very important one. This bill will enhance Australia’s ability to deliver on quality education services to overseas students—the students who contribute to our multicultural society while gaining skills and knowledge here; the hundreds and thousands of students from around the globe who choose Australia as their study base each year, enhancing our social fabric. The Rudd Labor government’s commitment to action on education—primary, secondary and tertiary—is, in my view, unparalleled in recent history. In delivering on the commitment so thoroughly endorsed by the electorate two years ago, the Rudd government is returning integrity and confidence to the education sector—confidence that, particularly in the tertiary arena, was so degraded by our predecessors, who neglected this vital component of our national life and, indeed, of our economic and social future.

An OECD report on higher education released only one month before the last election found that, while Australia’s public spending on higher education remained well below the levels of other developed countries, we had the highest proportion of international students of all developed countries. Of the students on campus at that time, 17.3 per cent came from overseas and almost all of these students paid, and continue to pay, full fees. Australian universities now depend significantly on the international student dollar. We welcome these students, including in my home state of South Australia. South Australian institutions including TAFE, UniSA, Flinders University and the University of Adelaide all have international students attending. Last year in South Australia we welcomed a record enrolment of more than 33,500 international students from more than 130 countries across our educational sectors—higher education, vocational education, high schools, English-language studies and foundation courses.

Economic statistics show the education of overseas students is an export industry. It is now our third-largest export. Overall, it brings more than $15 billion into our national economy. BankSA’s economic bulletin, Trends, which is compiled in conjunction with Access Economics, addressed this very matter in its November 2009 issue. It discussed the impact of international students specifically on the local economy, stating that, in 2000, international students represented 13 per cent of the higher education student population in South Australia. By 2007 that share had risen to more than 28 per cent. International students, and visits from their friends and families, contribute $680 million a year to our economy. International student activity contributes more than 6,000 full-time equivalent workers to the state’s employment base. Education related exports accounted for 38.7 per cent of all service exports by 2007-08. In both 2007 and 2008 there was strong growth in enrolments in the vocational education and training sector and in the English language intensive courses for the overseas student sector.

Clearly, it is in our economic interest to ensure that the system is appropriately managed and regulated. However, the provision of education services is not only a financial exercise. It is incumbent upon us, as a government and in partnership with providers, to ensure the provision of a high-quality experience and a safe environment for those who entrust us with their hopes, their professional aspirations and their family’s hard earned dollars. It is the case that the sector has grown so rapidly across Australia in recent years that the necessary checks and balances have not, in some instances, been appropriately applied. This means that in a minority of cases unscrupulous individuals and organisations have been able to take advantage of students for personal gain. These operators risk the future of the students they attract to these less-than-reputable services and institutions. This is, of course, unacceptable.

The entire legislative framework of our education services for overseas students is under review. The review of the ESOS legislative framework, led by the former member for Cook the honourable Bruce Baird, is examining the adequacy of the ESOS framework in four key areas: (1) supporting the interests of students, (2) delivering quality as a cornerstone of Australian education, (3) effectively regulating and (4) sustaining the international education sector, with the aim to ensure we continue to offer world-class international education in a changing environment. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Mr Baird said:

… the review was critical for securing the long-term credibility of Australian education in the international marketplace.

The legislation as it stands aims to protect the interests of overseas students by way of a regulatory regime, minimum standards, tuition, financial assurance and the like. It also improves our migration laws by ensuring that providers collect and furnish information pertaining to student visas.

The bill clarifies and/or adjusts certain provisions for greater certainty. It rectifies other provisions now identified as having the potential for inequitable or unreasonable consequences. It introduces protocols and pro-cedures that will improve accountability and put in place disincentives for the use of education agencies that are less than reliable. The bill will achieve these aims by providing for the re-registration of all institutions currently appearing on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students by 31 December 2010; requiring satis-faction by state and territory authorities with regard to the proper purpose and capacity of the provider; requiring the publication by providers of the details of agents represen-ting and promoting the services of those pro-viders; providing for requirements for compliance concerning agents for providers; providing for the discretionary removal of the prohibition on collecting moneys where a course is suspended; ensuring the recognition of conditions imposed on providers at the state or territory level by the Commonwealth; allowing certain exemptions from the pro-vider default refund requirements—for example, where a provider is merely changing its legal entity—and clarifying the present criteria relating to suitable alternative courses.

These measures will augment and improve the protections already established for both the industry and the students, whose interests are so important to us in so many ways. Without doubt, a strong and appropriately resourced education sector is vital to Australia’s future both locally and in terms of our international competitiveness. One cornerstone of our future wellbeing as a community and of our economic security now and in an increasingly uncertain global environment is investment in education. This investment, which underpins our reputation as a quality exporter of education services, must be protected. It cannot be compromised. The Rudd Labor government is determined to act on this country’s needs now and into the future. The measures outlined in the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009 put that determination into achievable form. As the Deputy Prime Minister wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Overseas students have generally thought Australia is a great place to study, and it is vital that reputation be secured.

…       …            …

We want to make sure those who come here enjoy their time in Australia and get the quality edu-cation they seek. When they do, they become phenomenally effective ambassadors for Australia.

Ms Gillard also paraphrased former Monash University Vice-Chancellor Richard Larkins’s statement:

… many senior political, business, professional and public service roles in South-East Asia are filled by graduates of our universities, or by the parents of those studying here.

The advantages of this exchange go beyond the multicultural environment that is so much a hallmark of our country today, to the trade, diplomatic and security ramifications and relationships that are so important for our future. In closing, I recommend the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009 and look forward to its passage through this chamber.