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Thursday, 21 March 2013
Page: 2341

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (12:22): I want to indicate my support for the measures in this Higher Education Support Amendment (Further Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2013 and for the other steps the government has taken to improve and streamline the higher education system. I particularly want to note the improvements in oversight of higher education and training providers, especially in terms of protection for overseas students.

However, there is one significant area where the government is consistently and significantly failing smaller providers. On 30 June 2011, the Knight review into the student visa framework handed down 41 recommendations to improve Australia's student visa system. In September 2011, as part of its response to these recommendations, the government announced that it would request DIAC to undertake a review of the student visa assessment level framework, with a discussion paper released in March 2012—over a year ago. The outcome of that review was supposed to be delivered in November last year. It still has not been released, despite repeated assurances from the government that the findings will be announced shortly. Well, so far, 'shortly' has covered nearly six months.

In my home state of South Australia, the value of higher education and training providers to the economy cannot be underestimated. We know that overseas student levels have been dropping. In South Australia, the sector was worth $1.3 billion in 2010. By 2011, that had dropped 14 per cent to $884 million. Across Australia in 2011, the sector also contributed almost 130,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

It is believed that the government will be announcing a streamlined visa application for certain education and training providers. But in South Australia and in the smaller states—Mr Deputy President, in your home state of Tasmania this is relevant as well—where the majority of providers fall into the small to medium category, there is serious concern they will be excluded from this scheme and that could mean disaster. Why would international students choose to study at a smaller provider if they receive a more favourable, fast-tracked visa status or process somewhere else? It could mean the loss of hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs, business closures and the end of revenue from associated areas such as accommodation. The government's refusal to respond to the review is keeping smaller providers in limbo. They have no idea what might happen next week, so they are operating as best they can without being able to make firm plans for the future.

On top of that, the Australian Skills Quality Authority recently released its new fees regime, which will mean a huge increase in payments for smaller providers. New regulations also announced by the National Skills Standards Council will be an added burden because, while we obviously have to protect standards, there needs to be a more flexible approach for smaller providers, which I believe we can do without compromising standards. I have had meetings and discussions with the South Australian Minister for Employment, Higher Education and Skills, the Hon. Grace Portolesi, and she has been terrific in her advocacy for this sector. I know that she has recently met the federal minister, and she too shares my concerns about the potential impact of these changes in South Australia on South Australian providers. I commend her for her advocacy and work in relation to this.

The Australian Council for Private Education and Training is so desperate for the government to respond to the visa situation that it published an open letter to the Prime Minister on Tuesday in the national press. This is a letter by Martin Cass, the chair of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training. In part, the letter read:

It is with regret that I write this open letter urging you to act on the numerous reports and reviews your government has commissioned to support international education. Your delay threatens organisations like mine, our students and our staff.

The letter continues:

Filling an educational niche that a university or TAFE can't fill is part of Australia's innovative edge. Not all students (whether they are Australian or international) want or need to study with a large institution. I urge you to recognise and celebrate small businesses in the education sector when you respond to the National Skills Standards Council proposed changes to the regulatory standards for small providers.

More urgently, I ask you to act on the advice you have received and to extend improved visa processing arrangements to international students in non-university providers, rather than seeking to only reward large, homogenous public institutions.

We know the value of this sector to the economy and, more importantly, to the students who come to our country to continue their education. The government have not been able to give a clear reason why their response to this review has been delayed for so long. They cannot even give providers a date for the announcement, even after six long months of waiting. Enough is enough. Higher education and training providers need to know what is going to happen so that they can make business plans and adjust as well as possible if the news is not good.

I call on the government today to explain their inaction and to justify why smaller providers should continue to exist on a knife edge. It is bad policy—if the government has a policy at all. So while there have been improvements in the sector, smaller providers seem to be slipping through the cracks. We need to fix that and ensure that the sector can survive and be stronger than ever.