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Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee
11/05/2012

HARTMAN-WARREN, Ms Kylee Micajah, International Officer and National Operations Committee Representative, Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

Committee met at 13 :14

CHAIR ( Senator Crossin ): I formally open this public hearing of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee in our inquiry into the Migration Legislation Amendment (Student Visas) Bill 2012. The bill was referred by the Senate to the committee on 22 March 2012 for inquiry and report by 18 June 2012. This bill amends the Migration Act 1958 and the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 to abolish the automatic cancellation of student visas and create a new system in which information conveyed by student course variations more strategically analyses and targets noncompliance. We have received 18 submissions to this inquiry. All of those submissions have been published and are available on the committee's website.

I remind all witnesses that in giving evidence to the committee they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to the committee and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also contempt to give false or misleading evidence to the committee. We do prefer all evidence to be given in public but there are provisions for evidence to be given in camera if that is requested or necessary. I remind you that this public hearing is being televised within the Australian Parliament House and also broadcast live via the web.

I now welcome our representative from the Council of Australian Postgraduates Association or CAPA as we know it fondly. Do you have any comment to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Ms Hartman-Warren : My capacity at CAPA is National Operations Committee Representative, and that is an executive role, as well as International Student Officer, and I share that position with two other students. I am also the Postgraduate Vice President of Community at the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association.

CHAIR: Thank you. We have your submission, which is numbered 17 on our website. I am going to ask you to provide us with some opening comments; then Senator Humphries and I have some questions for you.

Ms Hartman-Warren : The Knight review as a whole is something CAPA and its affiliates have celebrated, as is this amendment, especially in relation to the abolishment of the automatic cancellation of visas. We think this is beneficial. We think that the automatic cancellation of visas for international students who have unintentionally erred or who have failed to perform at a passing level in their academic studies is grossly disadvantageous to those students, their careers and their finances. We also think it is unfair to punish these students, especially if there are mitigating circumstances, and it could be deemed an unethical process as well for these reasons.

Most fee-paying international students, especially those who have been assessed as genuine temporary entrants, are here to study and wish to do well and do not wish to do so poorly as to have their visas cancelled. They face stresses many local students do not face, and some of them have the added challenge of maintaining marks when English is their second language. If a student is not performing at a passing level, chances are the student is struggling with a certain stress or misadventure that the student needs time to address. I think postgraduates are particularly at risk here, because postgraduates have the added stress of being in circumstances where they might have families or must maintain a part-time job while they try to do well in their studies. I think this new amendment will definitely benefit those students. Maintaining a student's visa when that student is not performing well gives that student the opportunity to address the strains or misadventures that might have been causing them to do poorly in the first place. Abolition of the automatic cancellation once a student performs poorly or graduates gives the student an opportunity to reconsider his or her studies or opportunities in Australia. It is not ethical to assume these students should be forced out of the country simply because they are struggling or doing poorly.

After discussing this amendment with the Council of International Students Australia, or CISA, CAPA shares concerns regarding the implementation of this amendment. We support it, but it seems the new amendment might divert student funding from student services to compliance, as universities must now take on the duty of assessing risk factors of students or maintaining student contact information. Secondly, CAPA shares the concern about the administrative strains these universities might face as they adopt these responsibilities. Many universities have strain on their administrative resources as it is, and CAPA worries that a further strain might begin to affect the quality of student services available.

I genuinely believe that the benefits of these amendments outweigh these risk factors, and it is CAPA's belief that the amendment relating to this bill involving automatic visa cancellations is the more ethical process. However, it is important to execute these mechanisms in the most ethical fashion possible and in ways that will maintain the high quality of education and student services these international students have travelled so far to experience.

The international students we have spoken with feel they have contributed and spent a great deal of time and resources to be in Australia. They welcome the Knight review changes, and this amendment would be a great relief to them, as they need the time and resources to address problems they might have in their studies. They endure a great amount of stress, as they have no access to social security and they must pay for extra transportation, health care and education to study here. For this reason, CAPA feels strongly that all international students currently studying in Australia should benefit from this new amendment and other benefits the Knight review has brought in, such as post-study work allowance.

While the Knight review as a whole has brought forth many benefits for international students, there is a lot of work that still needs to be done so international students can enjoy the security, affordability—in the case of concessions in Victoria and New South Wales—and opportunity their fellow local and international students have. Likewise, universities need support through this transition, and CAPA is willing to work with universities and the government to develop the best possible results for postgraduate and international students alike.

Finally we have a few solutions, or possible solutions, to address the possible strain on universities. We feel strongly that compliance rests on the students. The students need to own the responsibility for changing their addresses and ensuring that everybody has the proper connection and way to contact them should they need to do so. That is probably the best solution, although we did express support for Universities Australia's solution, which involves the university contacting the department of immigration when an international student has been thought to breach their visa. While we think this might be a valid option, we feel this should be executed with fairness in the case of misadventure, accidents or error and other mitigating factors so that the students are treated as fairly as possible. That is my opening statement.

CHAIR: This act also amends the ESOS Act and it requires a registered provider to provide particular details of the changewithin 14 days. I have two questions. Firstly, given your comment 'responsibility rests with the students', do you think an onus on the students is lacking in this legislation? Secondly, do you think 14 days is too short a period of time in which the provider needs to respond?

Ms Hartman-Warren : I definitely could address the second question, but I did not actually hear the first question as you cut out briefly.

CHAIR: My first question was: what you think is the onus on the student to ensure that there is timely notification of any change of details?

Ms Hartman-Warren : I see what you are saying. I think the onus is on the student. I personally think that when we choose to move or relocate we take it upon ourselves to make sure that all of our billing providers and all of our employers know where we are living. I do not know why that would need to change for international students, except that maybe they might need some coaching in that process at the beginning of their education so that they know it is their responsibility to do that. My personal visa says that I have seven days to inform any provider of a change in address. It is good that I have to do that; however, that time frame might be a little steep given the situation where international students have to, say, stay in a halfway place while they are in the middle of a move. So, yes, I do think that responsibility does rest on the student, but I would question the time window for allowing that student to respond. That draws me into your second question: is 14 days enough? I do not think so; I think 28 days would be a more realistic time frame. I would not hesitate to go beyond that. Timely access to information is important, but 14 days seems to be cutting it a little bit fine—especially when you have four of those days being weekends and the fact that we have holidays and other factors going into that, and busy times of the year at universities. Does that answer your question?

CHAIR: Yes. Thank you.

Senator HUMPHRIES: I just have a couple of questions. I think it is pretty much axiomatic that, if you abolish the system of automatic visa cancellations where there are a variety of reasons for a student's failure to comply with the conditions of their visa, that is an inherently better system. What concerns me though is the downstream effect of creating the additional flexibility here, particularly on the department. I assume there are still many cases where the department might choose, perhaps in the absence of satisfactory contact with a student, to cancel a visa or to have to engage with a student to deal with issues arising out of the grounds for cancellation. Do you think processing these issues would impose a serious additional burden on the department of immigration? These issues have previously been dealt with, in large part, by way of automatic cancellation.

Ms Hartman-Warren : I think that it might, but I do not think that outweighs the questions around the special circumstances that students might need when they are in a situation where their visa might be automatically cancelled, especially around academic performance. If we want to bring international students into the country, we need to do right by them and make sure they have all the support mechanisms to turn their academics around before they are kicked out. I do worry that the alternative—that is, the automatic cancellation—is a little bit too stringent. Unfortunately, beyond that, I guess the department of immigration wants to investigate why a student is doing poorly. I do not know what mechanisms are going to be in place to help them with that process, but I think that student representation would definitely be a helping factor in that area if they want to reach out and connect with student representatives, who usually have advocacy officers helping the student when the student is doing poorly through the logistical process of visa cancellation or preventing being barred or suspended from the university.

Senator HUMPHRIES: As the international students officer of CAPA, I assume you would be dealing with lots of students who have different reasons for having disruptions to their studies. Could you outline for us what you think the three most common reasons would be for a student to come to a situation where their visa conditions might be at risk?

Ms Hartman-Warren : I could outline a few, but I do not know whether they would be the top three. Some of the more extreme cases would have to do with social security, with the student losing his or her opportunity to acquire funding or work. Obviously illness is a huge factor for international students: if they get a severe cold or a sickness while they are here they tend not to do as well in their studies. The lack of security with their housing is a big one. When students are asked to move automatically by a landlord that may or may not be housing them illegally, they get really stressed and they have to find a new place to live and stay on top of their studies. Those are probably the three most common reasons. The more extreme ones would involve threats to their security, as in violence or maybe bullying from academic staff.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Are you saying that is a common occurrence?

Ms Hartman-Warren : No, those are uncommon but probably the more emotionally traumatic ones. With international students, if they bring families over they do have some extra obligations they must meet while they are trying to study as well.

Senator HUMPHRIES: But you would not like to speculate on what you consider to be the more common reasons?

Ms Hartman-Warren : Sorry, I thought I did that. The most common ones would be finance, illness and lack of housing security.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Right, I see. What about students simply coming to the conclusion that the course was not for them or deciding that they found it too hard or something of that sort and deciding to go and do something else, either by leaving the country or attempting to look for a job or something of that sort; is that very common?

Ms Hartman-Warren : At the University of Sydney and with many of the established universities we see less of that. However, sometimes we get students who might, for example, be studying jurisprudence and maybe they decide they want to do another area of law because there are certain courses that they just do not have talents for. They tend to stay in the same area but they might switch programs because there is a course that, for whatever reason, they cannot seem to pass.

CHAIR: Thank you for your submission to our inquiry and for making yourself available this afternoon. We have come to the end of the questions we have for you, so thank you very much.

Ms Hartman-Warren : I appreciate having had this opportunity on behalf of CAPA. It is really awesome that you are willing to listen to students on these important issues.