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Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee

BLUNDELL, Ms Sue, Executive Director, English Australia

MOORE, Ms Ainslie, Assistant Director, International Relations, Universities Australia

O'HALLORAN, Mr Paul, Chair, International Education Subcommittee, Council of Private Higher Education


Evidence was taken via videoconference—

CHAIR: Welcome. Which city are you in?

Ms Blundell : We are in the Innovation offices in Sydney, which they have kindly made available to us.

CHAIR: The Universities Australia submission we have numbered 11 on the website, English Australia submission 3 and the Council of Private Higher Education submission 6. Have each of you got a few comments about the bill, or is someone going to talk on behalf of all of you? Then Senator Humphries and I have got some questions for you.

Ms Blundell : We each have individual comments.

CHAIR: Who is going to go first? Ms Moore.

Ms Moore : Universities Australia welcomes the opportunity to address the committee by video link today. I am going to be more impressed if we can get through this whole session and still see you at the end! We recognise the value of the intent of these bills and we applaud the government for the initiative it is displaying in the reforms under the TPS. We consider that they provide an enduring and excellent architecture for building an enduring international education brand around high-quality innovation which will improve our competitive advantage. We consider the amendments are well-intentioned. I think there are some areas of improvement that are possible in the implementation of it such that the administrative burden placed upon universities and other providers could be lessened. I am happy to go into some options that might make that possible but they have been included in our submission.

Ms Blundell : Thank you for the opportunity. English Australia is the peak body for the English language sector of international education. First, we would like to point out that the last two years we believe have been a period of intensive regulatory reform for the international education industry. Whilst acknowledging the need for reform and welcoming many of the individual reform initiatives, we note that this reform has imposed a range of additional costs on education providers' operations that have seriously challenged Australia's international competitiveness. At every stage of the reform process we have sought to ensure that these additional costs are justified and proportionate in terms of the intended outcomes and not just more red tape for the sake of red tape. Talking to English Australia colleges that have operations across a range of countries, including the UK, the US and Canada—key competitors of ours—we are the most expensive country to do business in. Staff costs and compliance costs are high, and with margins low these costs need to be passed on to students in their fees, thus adding to the strong Australian dollar in making us less competitive in price for students considering their options for destinations.

We are here today to discuss the Migration Legislation Amendment (Student Visas) Bill 2012. We welcome the focus of the bill on achieving a more targeted and strategic use of DIAC resources in dealing with noncompliance issues, but we would like to note our concern about the potential for additional costly administrative burdens to be placed on providers who are already struggling to deal with the reforms coming out of other recommendations of the Baird and Knight reviews.

So, in our submission, we have called upon the innovation and immigration departments to look at how the administrative burden can be reduced on providers trying to meet the intent of this bill, which is all about being strategic in our use of resources. We hope that our concerns will be acknowledged and we can work together to develop some mechanisms that will minimise the burden and keep us competitive. Thank you.

Mr O'Halloran : The Council of Private Higher Education participated in the Baird and Knight reviews and broadly support the recommendations coming out of those. Without wanting to reiterate what my colleagues have already said, we support the intent of this bill, including the removal of the mandatory visa cancellation through the issue of the section 20 notice. We recognise the need for DIAC to be able to enforce the integrity of the visa system, but I would like to note that we also appreciate the detail and immediacy of the market data available through PRISMS. That has been there for the last decade. I do not think any other country has such good quality data available so quickly.

But I would like to focus on one sense in which we would regard PRISMS as clumsy: the fact that it requires manual data entry rather than uploading information from provider databases, which higher education providers already have for the HELP loans and other reporting data to the department. The data entry is not a problem where there are a small number of students, for example changing courses or where they are being reported at the moment for noncompliance, but our members see it as a major administrative load when they are required to enter and then update details of all students, most of whom we expect that DIAC will have no need to actually contact.

The decline in international numbers, which is well documented, is cutting into the administrative and support staff that colleges are able to employ. Our concern is that yet another greater administrative load will further reduce student services, and our industry is surely about the students. Our main point is, while we support the intent of the bill, I think there really has to be—and our advice is that this is quite achievable—an enhancement of PRISMS, which already exists in other databases, to be able to upload that information. The providers keep, of course, the student details in those records in their own databases. It is a matter of getting one system talking to the other rather than having it all re-entered manually. Thank you. That is our main point.

CHAIR: I have some questions, and perhaps you can work out between yourselves who is going to answer them. At the moment, when a student changes their contact details, is that simply entered on your own database and not transferred to the immigration department?

Mr O'Halloran : That is right. In some of our colleges with large numbers, the students will perhaps do it online and update it themselves, and that will be captured in the college database. Some smaller institutions have different mechanisms but every higher education provider already has a database that talks to some of the government systems.

CHAIR: So one issue is the fact that your individual databases do not link in with the immigration department. Is the other issue compliance within the 14 days?

Ms Moore : Yes. The 14 days is an additional overhead cost, but the real concern is the manual entry and the amount of time that will take.

Ms Blundell : Yes, I do not think the time frame is the issue here. I think it is the manual nature of the data entry. And it is not about necessarily the systems being able to automatically talk to each other but they would be able to upload bulk data through a transfer of data through a system that will actually make it easy to do. Rather than doing it student-by-student, manually, where someone has to sit at a computer who is trained in PRISMS to do it, you can do all of your students once every fortnight and you have got an update system that is in place. It is a simple mechanism to implement, I believe.

CHAIR: Sure. That is to upload and transfer data to DIAC. Is that right?

Ms Blundell : To PRISMS, which is the database that is operated by the innovation department but that DIAC can access.

CHAIR: I see. Is there any discussion about making this an easier process for you?

Ms Moore : I have seen the innovation submission to this inquiry, and they state at the end of their submission that they are looking into options to enable greater communication between provider systems and PRISMS, but at the moment nothing exists.

Mr O'Halloran : And given the amount of change in the workload, our concern is that if the bill is enacted, even if the systems are changed down the track, that will provide an immediate, further and substantial workload when a lot of colleges are already under stress.

CHAIR: Answer this question for me then: is it possible to ensure that the requirements about breaching visa conditions could be met under this legislation but the second requirement of notifying everybody's change within 14 days could be delayed until there is a system in place? Or can you not have one without the other?

Ms Blundell : The point we are trying to make is that colleges are maintaining the up-to-date student contact details in their own databases. So if a student is reported and DIAC needs to get those student contact details, those contact details are entered into PRISMS when the student is reported. So I do not think that this legislation would be delayed if that requirement was actually separated from it, because DIAC still has access to the contact details for students who are in breach. It is the bulk of the other students who are not reported to DIAC whose contact details are currently not updated in PRISMS. But that does not impact on DIAC's ability to do their work in terms of following up breaches.

Mr O'Halloran : There are other scenarios that I know DIAC could raise, for example, where they might have other information and wish to contact a student. Another model, which I think was in the Universities Australia submission, was that they could then contact the provider. We are talking about only a very small proportion of students that DIAC has reason to want to contact.

CHAIR: I guess what I am hearing you say is: if a student is actually continuing in their course, with no possibility of breaching their visa conditions, the fact that they might change address every six months is irrelevant to DIAC but relevant for you.

Ms Blundell : Yes.

Ms Moore : Yes.

CHAIR: So DIAC really only needs to know about their change of circumstances if there is a potential breach of their visa.

Ms Blundell : Yes.

CHAIR: I see.

Ms Blundell : And therefore DIAC needs to contact them for that reason.

CHAIR: All right. Senator Humphries, do you have any questions?

Senator HUMPHRIES: I think the chair's questions have covered my concerns. You were saying, Ms Moore, that you saw that the innovation department's submission made reference to sorting out some of these issues as the system was rolled out, or it would be in the next stage of their work. I assume—without having seen them yet—that they would say the concerns raised by the provider organisations like yourselves can be addressed at that stage, and that is the appropriate implementation point at which to make these things happen. Is there a customary mechanisms for dealing with such issues through some kind of forum or roundtable where you would regularly talk to departments like that about implementation issues around the student visa regime?

Ms Moore : There is currently a forum—the Education Visa Consultative Committee—that talks about matters surrounding student visas, and this would be an appropriate place to have that discussion. For a number of years we have been positing the idea that a data working group that discusses the ways that providers interact with various departments—be that DIAC, Innovation or others—on student information would be a useful service for both government and providers and it would help us to address these kinds of issues.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Were you consulted by Mr Knight in the Knight review?

Ms Moore : We certainly were. I think the Knight review was an excellent system for engaging with industry for the purposes of looking at improving the system. However, Knight did not go into these kinds of specifics and small details. So, while we agree with the intent, it is the detail of the implementation where things can get complicated.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Fair enough. Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Ms Moore, in your submission from Universities Australia you have a suggestion that the bill should be amended—this is on the second page—and that only a registered provider should give the particulars of any change of circumstance of a student 'after the provider becomes aware the student has breached their visa conditions'. How do you become aware of that being the case?

Ms Moore : In the circumstances where the student is not making academic progress. You are the organisation that identifies the visa breach and reports it to Immigration. At that point you would say, 'The student has breached this visa condition and these are their contact details.'

Ms Blundell : There is also the attendance requirement. There are two key obligations for education providers under the ESOS Act that relate to academic progress and attendance. That is when a provider is obligated to report a student for breach of those conditions.

CHAIR: Are you required to report for any other possible breaches or are they the two predominant conditions under which a student gets a visa to study here?

Ms Moore : Those are the two predominant reasons that have to do with academic progress.

Ms Blundell : And the provider obligations. Other breaches might relate to the student's work rights, for example, where they are allowed to work 40 hours per fortnight, but providers would not know if students were breaching those.

CHAIR: Have you ever been given an indication from DIAC where they suspect a student has breached their work rights and your up-to-date contact details for the student would assist them in tracking that down and investigating that?

Ms Blundell : It has not been raised in the past, but obviously those contact details would be available to DIAC if they contacted the provider, because they are maintained in the provider database.

CHAIR: Again, you are saying, 'We don't need to automatically provide them every fortnight, but, if a red light goes off and DIAC are worried about the breach of work rights, they could contact us'?

Ms Blundell : Yes.

CHAIR: Are you able to provide DIAC with details of a student's contact details in a suspected breach other than for academic reasons? Is there anything preventing you from giving those details to DIAC if it is a work rights breach rather than an academic progress breach?

Ms Moore : There is nothing to prevent us updating a student's contact details on PRISMS for any reason.

CHAIR: All right. I do not have any other questions. Is there anything you want to add?

Ms Moore : Could I address a point made in the Immigration submission?

CHAIR: Yes, most definitely.

Ms Moore : Thank you. There is a note that says:

The Department is aware of some concern among education providers about the potential increase in administration associated with the proposal to require details of changes in contact details to be given within 14 days after the provider becomes aware of the change. The Department notes that this potential increase would be offset to a certain extent by the removal of the requirement for providers to download, complete and send a notice to a student under section 20 of the ESOS Act where they have failed to maintain satisfactory academic progress or attendance.

That is at the top of page 11 of their submission. I do not think this argument holds water.

CHAIR: Tell us why.

Ms Moore : Providers are still required to notify a student of their intent to report them for failure to make satisfactory academic progress, so they still have an obligation to communicate with the student on this matter and that communication will ensure that they will be aware of the need to maintain up-to-date records of the student's contact details in PRISMS, because that is a trigger for reporting.

CHAIR: So you are saying that it does not combat the arguments you have put to us?

Ms Moore : No—for that reason and others. But the number of times a student has moved or gets a new mobile number will surely be vastly more than the number of times we have to report students.

CHAIR: Just give me an indication of how many times in a 12-month period—

Ms Moore : A student might change their contact details?

CHAIR: No, that they might be in potential breach of a visa.

Mr O'Halloran : Talking about my own college, we would typically have 1,000 students. We would notify the intent to report perhaps eight or 10 in a year. The biggest sector is ELICOS where there is an attendance requirement. The great bulk of those breaches are in fact of attendance requirements. It is about one per cent or two per cent. The issue is recording manually the data for 1,000 students versus the dozen or so that we are reporting for noncompliance.

Senator HUMPHRIES: That is the workload issue?

Ms Blundell : Yes, that is right—two per cent compared with 100 per cent.

CHAIR: In Universities Australia, Ms Moore, do you have any idea for some of the bigger universities how many students would be overseas students versus those who might breach their visa?

Ms Moore : When we look at cancellation numbers they are less than five per cent. So it is a similar scale.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your submission and for highlighting that section of DIAC's submission to us as well. That was good work there. Thank you for your time this afternoon.