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Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Page: 1188

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (12:22): I will first reflect on some of the comments made by Senator Back in his comprehensive contribution on this package of education services for overseas students legislation, not so much on points of difference but on matters that need to be sorted out in the committee stage. There is no doubt there is unanimity in this place about the importance of the overseas student sector. It is a significant part of Australia's economy. In my home state of South Australia it is one of the biggest export earners. South Australia is better as an economy and as a community because of the overseas student sector. It would be fair during the committee stage to explore the concerns around risk raised by Senator Back and others in the coalition. My understanding, as I read the bill, is that all but the lowest risk providers will have to keep prepaid fees in a designated account for the first study period. There is an element in the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations that relates to risk that ought to be explored. The committee inquiry was very ably chaired by Senator Gavin Marshall and the deputy chair, Senator Back.

We not only need to strike a balance between ensuring that we do not have so much red tape that it becomes an onerous burden on educational institutions but also need to have some security, some sense of guarantee, for those overseas students who sign up for these courses that they will be able to pay those fees with the security that if anything does go wrong with an education provider they will not be out of pocket. That is the very important policy balance that needs to be obtained.

Let us put this in perspective. This is a major sector which is very important to Australia's economy and very important to my home state of South Australia. I have spoken in the past about my concerns for the overseas student sector in Australia and how we slipped back for a whole range of reasons. One of the big challenges we now have is a very strong Australian dollar, which is making us less competitive in the overseas student sector. The government needs to be congratulated for the action it has taken so far. The Baird review was a positive review that looked at a whole range of issues to comprehensively deal with these problems. The fact that Mr Bruce Baird AM was a former senior coalition politician indicates that the government has tackled this issue in a bipartisan fashion, and that is a good thing.

In my home state of South Australia, overseas students make up nearly 10 per cent of the state's total exports compared to between seven and eight per cent nationally. That is why I have a vested interest, if you like, on behalf of my constituents to make sure we get this right. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous education providers have taken advantage of the strong growth in this sector to make a quick buck. In 2009 and 2010 we heard story after story of students who had come to Australia only to find the course was not what they paid for and, in some cases, the course and the provider no longer existed. There were also distressing stories of students forced to undertake long hours of physical labour in exchange for minimal education. This, coupled with disturbing accounts of isolated attacks against overseas students, even though they were universally condemned, began to reduce confidence in the sector. The overhaul of provider standards and regulations along with the establishment of an overseas students ombudsman have finally begun to pay off with improved standards and increased confidence for providers and students alike.

I note the work the government has done in implementing the Baird review, and this package of legislation is a part of that. The Australian overseas student education sector is much stronger as a result of these changes, and I support the government's intentions in these bills. I also support the government's amendments to these bills, which are in line with the recommendations made by the committee.

I will be moving again—I hope it is a case of third time lucky—amendments to the Education Services for Overseas Students Legislation Amendment (Tuition Protection Service and Other Measures) Bill 2011 and I will discuss these in more detail during the committee stage. In brief, my amendment simply gives the minister the discretionary power to make payments to overseas students to cover incidental costs such as travel or accommodation where a provider has failed to deliver the services as promised. It is a discretion for the minister that I think can be exercised in a way and in a manner that could enhance confidence in the sector. These payments could only be made after consultation with the Director of the Tuition Protection Service and if they do not put the TPS in financial difficulty. I am trying to get that blend of ensuring that it strengthens the sector and also ties it back to fiscal responsibility. These measures are sensible and straightforward and have appropriate safeguards in place to ensure that they do not place an excessive burden on the scheme.

I support these bills. I think it is fair, though, that some of the concerns raised by Senator Back and other coalition senators in their additional comments to the committee report be addressed. As I see it, we need to strengthen support and confidence in the sector. That will involve some costs, but the benefits of that will be to have more overseas students coming to Australia knowing with greater confidence that they will be protected from unscrupulous operators, the very small minority that taint the sector. The measures in this bill are a positive step.