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Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Page: 246

Senator XENOPHON (12:11 PM) —Australia has long been promoted as a high-quality study destination for overseas students. As of June 2009 there were 467,407 enrolments in the higher education, vocational education and training, secondary school, and English-language sectors by full-fee-paying international students on student visas. This is compared to just 204,401 in June 2002, so there has been a massive expansion of the sector.

Indeed, Australia has progressively opened its education system to overseas students, making it more attractive and more accessible to students from India, China, Thailand, Korea, the United States and Indonesia, to name but a few nations. Today, it is a $16 billion a year industry and, unfortunately, because it is such a lucrative market it is becoming increasingly susceptible to dodgy operators. There have been extensive reports of substandard education services and of questionable practices by providers and by education and immigration agents. Last year, a number of private colleges closed down without warning leaving overseas students, who had been promised and who had paid for a high-quality education, with nowhere to go. In yesterday’s Age, a report written by Sushi Das said that:

AUSTRALIA’S international education industry has suffered another massive blow with the collapse of eight English language colleges, leaving 2300 foreign students around the country in the dark over their future.

That includes a 530 students in Melbourne, the largest group, and 130 in my home town of Adelaide. That indicates the magnitude of the problem. I acknowledge what Senator Boyce said in her contribution: that there are people whose families have put their life savings—who have borrowed money—to giving their children an opportunity for a high-quality education here in Australia. We have heard stories of families in India who have done so and, indeed, of families all around the world who have made huge sacrifices for their children to come here. We owe them a duty of care to ensure they have not only a high-quality education but that they are able to complete their courses and that rigorous standards apply to those courses.

Last year 12 private providers collapsed displacing around 1,700 students and the report in the Age yesterday indicates that 2,300 students were affected—that is, around 4,000 students in just the last few months. Quite simply, those students turned up for school one day and the doors were locked. The studies they left their family and friends for—the education they travelled to Australia to complete—were declared over; often without notice.

The ESOS Assurance Fund, which was established in 2000 to protect the interests of current and intending overseas students, paid out a very significant $4.2 million in refunds in the 18 months to June last year to students whose providers could not provide the course or courses that the student had paid for. At the rate of these closures, the fund faces being potentially emptied out; it needs to be topped up. I note that the 2010 contributions to the fund have been increased to a total of 0.189 per cent of a provider’s annual fee income and that a range of new levies to support the solvency of the fund over the next six months have been introduced. This is a positive step as it will mean overseas students will have greater protection and option for recourse. However, it also acknowledges that there is a serious and increasing problem in this industry. I think many senators would have seen the Four Corners expose on this industry a few months ago in terms of the problems with service providers and how the system has been rorted by some dodgy operators, which of course casts a pall on all those very good operators out there who provide high quality services.

Further, I believe it needs to be acknowledged that, when an overseas student moves to Australia to study, they incur significant costs such as travel, rent and fees associated with organising visas, for example. That is why I will be moving an amendment to this bill which will call for the minister to have the power to regulate for certain consequential costs to be accounted for by the provider and thereby the ESOS Assurance Fund. I do not think it is enough that the compensation is simply about the fees involved. There are consequential losses that a student can incur, and that ought to be taken into account. It ought to be a priority of the government to give a level of assurance and comfort to overseas students and their families to know that, if something goes wrong, there is a backstop and adequate compensation for those students who have been left in the lurch.

There have been claims by overseas students that agents and colleges promising them high-quality accommodation and jobs on arrival have misrepresented the true cost of living in Australia. Indeed, these sorts of reports, along with the negative image in terms of some of the attacks against students, have damaged our reputation overseas. I believe this legislation gives us an opportunity to do more. One of the great pleasures of my role as a senator has been to advocate for overseas students. I have dealt with a number of Indian students. I think we need to strengthen laws so that we can ensure that students get the guarantees, the assurances and the legislative protection they require when they enrol in courses.

Just last weekend, India’s junior external affairs minister advised students to avoid travelling to Australia. I think that warning is unfair but I also think we have an obligation to work hard to overcome negative perceptions and to do all that we reasonably can to strengthen our bond with countries where we have a strong overseas student component.

Australia prides itself on being the land of opportunity and a place where education is accessible to all. To lose overseas students because of these unscrupulous businesses—you certainly could not call them education providers—would be a real shame. It would impact on our reputation as an open and fair country and as a country of opportunity. It would also impact on our economy, with a cost to Australian jobs. However, the primary concern has to be to ensure that these students get what they are paying for.

I commend the government on introducing this bill, which will strengthen Australia’s reputation for quality education and services and give greater assurances and support to overseas students and their families who pay significant amounts of money for their children to come to Australia for a world-class education.

I understand from the minister’s office that the Baird review into the Education Services for Overseas Students Act will be handed down at the end of next month and I look forward to reading the recommendations. I believe it is important that the government yet again undertakes to open up this act, shortly after the Baird review, to ensure that we have an opportunity to implement recommendations that would involve strengthening the act. I presume that is what the Baird review will do. I presume that the whole intent of the Baird review is to have a more robust system in place to ensure that we can give further guarantees and assurances to our overseas students.

I look forward to introducing my amendments to protect students further from the costs of dodgy operators in this industry. I also hope that my proposed amendments, if they do not pass, will be considered as part of the Baird review. It is important that this legislation is seen as a starting point for our overseas students and that we are doing more to give them the guarantees and the assurances they deserve. The next step ought to be further reforms to this sector, once the Baird review is handed down.