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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 12553

Mrs ANDREWS (McPherson) (18:18): I rise to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students Legislation Amendment (Tuition Protection Service and Other Measures) Bill 2011 and related bills. The Education Services for Overseas Students Act has been evolving through substantial reforms since the year 2000, when there were allegations of immigration rorts, poor-quality education services, college closures and exploited students. Forty-one recommendations from an independent evaluation in 2004-05 were endorsed to improve the act's effectiveness. Following this, amendments were made to the act in 2006-07. However, in 2009, further allegations of unethical behaviour reported by the media led to protests by the Indian community against assaults on Indian students and the closures of a number of colleges.

In just over a decade reforms and amendments to the ESOS Act have been implemented to ensure the fair treatment of the international student body. The proposed amendments that I am speaking on here today have the potential to strengthen and reform the existing act. The bills seek to strengthen tuition protection to ensure that overseas students receive the tuition they have paid for or, as a last resort, a refund. This will be done through the Tuition Protection Service, which is intended to make more flexible and streamlined student placement and refund arrangements in the event of a defaulting provider's not meeting its obligations. In addition, there will be a limit to prepaid course fees, and these fees will be required to be placed into a designated account and only drawn upon when the student's course has commenced. Providers will also be required to ensure that efforts have been made to encourage students to update their contact details, with penalties applying for failure to do so. New requirements and penalties related to ensuring academic records are kept up to date will also be introduced. National registration for providers operating across different jurisdictions will be introduced, as will technical amendments, including clarification of various terms.

These bills were referred to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment, and the committee's report was presented earlier this week. There were a total of 22 submissions received. I note that the issue of concern raised by many of those who made submissions was in relation to the proposed 24-hour reporting periods for provider and student defaults. It is the recommendation of the committee that this period be extended from 24 hours to 72 hours. The member for Grey, who is the deputy chair of the committee, made the point that there are two parties who may default: the provider, who may default on delivery of the service, and the student, who can also default by not presenting for the first day of classes. The last may happen for any number of reasons. I note that the extension of the notification period from 24 hours to 72 hours will allow the opportunity for the provider to find or locate the student who has failed to present for class and, if they are unable to do so, to alert the TPS—the Tuition Protection Service. I also note the comments of the member for Grey indicating that industry is generally relaxed about the 72-hour notification period and on that basis the coalition did not lodge a dissenting report.

International students are very important to this country. They not only contribute financially to our economy but also contribute to the student experience of many Australians and the Australian student community. Unfortunately, we have had a downturn in the number of overseas students enrolling in Australian educational institutions. While almost 270,000 student visas were granted during the 2009-10 financial year, this number is a decrease of 15.8 per cent from the previous financial year, when 320,000 visas were issued. There are a number of reasons that we are seeing a decline in the number of international students in our educational institutions, many of which were identified in the Baird review. They include social issues as well as provider and educational issues. For every poor experience that a student has here in Australia there is a high possibility that the student will share the details of this experience with others. We need to ensure that our reputation is upheld as an international education destination. We need to make these students feel safe and, most importantly, we need to make them feel welcome.

The Gold Coast has a lot to offer international students, and we already have many international students at our schools, at our training colleges and at our universities. The Gold Coast lifestyle, coupled with world-class educational facilities, ensures that we are well placed to provide the experience, education and support which these students both deserve and require as visitors to our country. We have an excellent climate on the Gold Coast, with wonderful beaches and an equally beautiful hinterland. Structurally, we have public and private hospitals, public transport services and numerous shopping centres as well as sporting clubs and community support organisations, so we certainly have the infrastructure and the support services in place for our large international student community. We have a lot to offer our overseas students and they in turn offer a lot to our community.

Education services are one of Australia's most productive export earners. Access Economics has reported that each international student contributes approximately $29,000 per annum on average to our economy. Additionally, these students invite their friends and families along to visit and they in turn contribute to our economy. For every dollar spent by an international student in our economy there is a flow-on effect which ensures that we are able to support Australian businesses and workers. It is important that we encourage our international students, though not just for their economic contribution. Their presence in the classroom and on campus adds to the learning experience for all students. Firstly, their presence at our educational institutions encourages an international approach to the curriculum. This is certainly very advantageous to our Australian students who later go on and seek international work experience. Whilst some of those graduates will permanently relocate overseas, there are many who will return to Australia and bring their experience and knowledge back to us.

With international students in the classroom, our Australian students also receive some of the benefits of international study without leaving their home. The broader student extracurricular experiences that students have access to thanks to the presence of international students helps them to understand cultures, religions and values different from their own and those generally around them. I will speak specifically about Bond University and their Latin American student contingent. Bond University is located within my electorate of McPherson, and they have a strong Latin American presence at their campus. They annually run a Latin American day, when all of the students on campus are invited to participate in activities that are relevant to Latin America. I have spoken to Bond University on a number of occasions about strengthening our links with Latin America, particularly with regard to the developing mining and resources sector and with the establishment of science and engineering courses and faculties on the Gold Coast. I will continue to work with Bond and our other universities on the Gold Coast to strengthen our engineering and science based courses.

The relationships between Australian and international students are often long-lasting and valuable, not just for the individual students but also potentially for us as a nation. I believe that we do need to build quite strongly on that. Our international students who remain on the Gold Coast also contribute to the local community, working within occupations that are experiencing skills shortages and volunteering within the community. In addition, these students are supporting the growth of our higher education participation rates, which at about 11 per cent on the Gold Coast are much lower than the national average. This has been illustrated by data from the 2006 census, which showed that only 18 per cent of the Gold Coast population aged 25 to 34 were degree qualified. Each additional enrolment in our local higher education sector is a positive step towards achieving a better outcome for our local education sector. I have expressed many times in this place how important our education sector is to the Gold Coast. While there has been a downturn in our tourism and construction industries, our education sector offers the greatest potential for further development to ensure we have a reliable second layer of industries to support our local economy.

In closing, I stress that we need to continue to improve our international education sector. There is still a lot of work to be done in this area, and I support this bill with the recommendation of the acceptance of an extension of the implementation date.