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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 1554

Senator MASON (11:24 AM) —The coalition is, in principle, in favour of a national regulator for the vocational education and training sector. We support this idea for the same reason we support the creation of TEQSA, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency—which, of course, is for the university sector—to maintain consistent standards and quality across the sector on a national level. I note that the minister introduced the TEQSA legislation this morning in the Senate. Like Senator Hanson-Young, I look forward to that debate over the next few weeks.

If anything, the VET sector is much more in need of a national regulator than universities, which, in general, both manage themselves well and are well managed under existing institutional arrangements. The VET sector, however, has been much in the news lately and, sadly, usually for the wrong reasons. Everyone interested in education issues in Australia is aware of the spate of collapses of VET institutions, mostly, but not exclusively, in Victoria, many of which operated more as visa and permanent residency factories than as educational institutions. On that issue I join with Senator Marshall, who I think made as always an intelligent contribution to this debate, and he is quite right to suggest that some of those institutions were set up for that purpose. It certainly seems that they were. The government had to act in response to that.

There have also been many worrying reports of violence directed against overseas students undertaking VET courses, again, but not exclusively, in Victoria. The federal government has been slow to act on some of these issues and when it did—and it had to—it did so in a haphazard manner characteristic of the government’s general approach to post-secondary education. The visa requirements were eventually tightened; that is true. Arguably, however, they were tightened a little bit too much with the government going from laxity to overreaction, which is now making it much more difficult for genuine overseas students to seek education in Australia, and it is putting Australian educational institutions at a disadvantage in comparison with some of our foreign competitors.

The issue of violence against students, fortunately, does seem to have subsided but, again, Senator Marshall was right, as a bad impression seemed to linger, particularly I might add, in India. That country, of course, is a very important market. Be that as it may, the need for a national VET regulator does remain if only so that the mistakes of the past are not allowed to happen again. The government has certainly made that case.

Although the problems I mentioned before have been largely restricted to the VET sector they do, sadly, cast a shadow across universities as well. The impact appears right across the higher education sector creating an inaccurate impression that Australia is somewhat unstable and even a bit violent and, indeed, even a bit of an unwelcome destination for overseas students. That is a mistaken but a bad impression. Education is far too important, economically, for Australia. We cannot afford to take another hit to our longstanding and otherwise good international reputation as a provider of quality education services.

All honourable senators will know that education is Australia’s fourth largest export industry after iron and coal. Only last year it was pushed from its traditional third position by the rise in the price of gold. Yet it remains Australia’s largest services export industry. A quarter of a million overseas students, who every year attend Australia’s schools, VET institutions and universities, inject billions of dollars into the Australian economy as well as billions directly into the education institutions they attend, thus cross-subsidising the teaching infrastructure and learning opportunities for our domestic students in Australia.

In addition to economic benefits there are also many intangible and sometimes immeasurable benefits as overseas students build lifelong friendships and connections with their Australian colleagues. They add to the international reservoir of goodwill towards our country and in some cases stay on to become residents and citizens, thus enriching Australia with their knowledge, their expertise and their hard work.

I was speaking to a government minister not so long ago who said that he was in Malaysia recently and was surprised but delighted to learn how many of the Malaysian cabinet had been educated here in Australia. There is no doubt that that serves as a great wellspring of good faith and cultural congruity with our country. That is a great thing. It is a good thing for Australia and for Malaysia.

Australia has for years, if not decades, been considered a world-class education provider for international students. Considering our small population, we have managed to attract more students per capita than just about any of our overseas competitors. The Australian educational achievement is quite remarkable. We have done very well in educating so many citizens of the world. We have built a strong and solid reputation as a welcoming destination offering a great lifestyle as well as excellent quality education for overseas students but, as all my colleagues this morning have said, our position has been under threat over the last few years. I think there would be unanimity on that in this place.

Our reputation has been affected by what some have called an almost perfect storm of unfavourable circumstances over the last few years. The global financial crisis has reduced the number of students seeking education overseas right across the globe. We have been hit by the GFC. Many of our target student markets such as India and China have been slowly but steadily developing their own quality domestic higher education services, negating the necessity for ambitious young people to travel overseas in order to gain a good education. In addition, our competitors in the international education marketplace—particularly the United States and, in very recent times, Great Britain—have been much more active and much more aggressive in recruiting international students to their marketplaces, somewhat putting pressure on ours. The high Australian dollar also does not help. It makes education in Australia that much more expensive for overseas students than it perhaps has ever been before.

Lastly, the controversies surrounding our VET sector do not help our image and our reputation overseas. They do not help at all. All these factors have combined and led to a fall in the number of international students attending Australian higher education institutions both in the VET and the university sectors. That in turn has meant less income for these institutions, which are already very stretched for resources. The sector is under great pressure. It is true that the numbers seem to have started bouncing back again. They have bounced back but with still a long way to go. The worst of the global financial crisis is thankfully behind us although I think it is fair to say the international economy is rather patchy. We cannot do much about the growing education standards and opportunities across the developing world. We also cannot make our international competitors abandon their quest for a greater share of the market as the United States and Great Britain are not about to leave the industry. Nor can we magically decrease the value of our dollar.

We certainly are duty bound to do everything that is in our control in order to rebuild a somewhat frayed reputation and to show the world that Australia remains an attractive destination for international students, offering them quality education, as well as a friendly educational experience. That is where the National VET Regulator comes in. The fact that we support the legislation in principle—as my friend Senator Nash spoke about before—does not extend to blindly agreeing to anything that the government puts up. As always with this government, the devil is very much in the detail and in the implementation. It seems that no matter how noble their intention—and I think the intention of the government is good—the government has yet again managed to botch yet another of their flagship education initiatives. It has happened—another flagship and another botch.

This legislation before us essentially requires the referral of powers from the states to the federal government and abolishing the state based regulators. That is essentially what we are doing. Otherwise all we are doing is merely adding another layer of bureaucracy and red tape on the system, creating innumerable future problems and potential jurisdictional conflicts. So far only the New South Wales government has passed legislation referring its powers to the Commonwealth. However, we now know that, should there be any amendments of the bill before us, the New South Wales referral would not support such an amended bill. We will be back again to square one.

In addition, Victoria and Western Australia have refused outright to sign up to the idea of a national regulator and Tasmania, South Australia and the great state of Queensland will continue to maintain their state regulatory bodies alongside the national one, following what they refer to as a wait-and-see principle to find out how the new system works and whether it is in their interests to abolish their own state regulators. In other words, this is becoming a bit of a shambles. Instead of a blueprint for a truly national system, what we have from the states is one yes, two noes and three maybes. Despite this we are being asked to vote now for a piece of legislation that is predicated on the referral of powers by all the states—the whole lot. Should this legislation be passed, we will end up with a system that will have two layers of bureaucracy instead of one—more red tape, more capacity for conflict, more duplication and more confusion.

What the government should do, and I urge my friends in the government to do this, is pull this bill off the agenda, go back to the states, restart the negotiations, make sure that concerns of stakeholders are addressed, obtain an agreement from all the states that they all refer their powers to the Commonwealth and then, and only then, come back to the parliament and put it again before the Senate. I think then you may find that the coalition is more than happy to assist; otherwise, we are just wasting our time and participating in another Labor-created mess, another botched implementation that does not achieve its objectives. For these reasons the coalition will not vote in favour of this bill at this time. We remain in principle in favour of a national VET regulator but we remain even more in favour of good policy making, good governance, less duplication, less bureaucracy and much less red tape.