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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 12557

Ms MARINO (ForrestOpposition Whip) (18:38): The Education Services for Overseas Students Legislation Amendment (Tuition Protection Service and Other Measures) Bill 2011 is one of a suite of bills aimed at protecting overseas students when they enrol with Australian education providers. There is no doubt that Australia had become well regarded in international circles as a provider of high quality education. However, this reputation became tarnished in recent years. In 2010 there were about 470,000 overseas students studying in Australia. Of these, 227,000 were in tertiary education, 147,000 were in vocational training courses, 97,000 were in intensive English language courses and 24,000 were in Australian schools.

Foreign students, as we know, bring with them new ideas and different experiences, and they add greatly to the diversity and colour that is the Australian community. The greatest number of foreign students in 2010 came from China followed by India and Korea. These students also require an industry that includes a myriad of small businesses to provide support services to them. The value to the Australian economy was around $15 billion, which meant overseas students represented Australia's third largest export market. However, in recent years concerns about standards and safety saw this drop by an estimated $2 billion. Government data recently released identified that, in contrast to the increases in student numbers in the past decade, in 2011 there was a 9.4 per cent reduction in foreign students studying in Australia.

Tertiary foreign student numbers attending Australian universities saw a modest 0.8 per cent rise. However, in all other sectors significant reductions were measured. Vocational education and English language courses both recorded more than 17 per cent reductions in student numbers. Of particular concern has been the significant drop in new enrolments, down by 3.1 per cent. This indicates that while existing students are staying on to finish their courses, new students are looking elsewhere around the globe for their educational needs. It also presents a challenge for educational institutions that could well face low numbers of foreign students for the next few years, until the trend of declining new enrolments reverses.

Around half of the universities across Australia have a quarter of their student population coming from overseas, and some can reach close to 50 per cent of foreign students. For those institutions, and particularly for intensive English language campuses, which can be almost exclusively for foreign students, the next few years will be of particular concern. These concerns are not new. Earlier this year in this House we debated the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill, which was also designed to protect and support overseas students studying in Australia. At the time we could already see that Australia's reputation and performance was being questioned. In that debate I told the House that there had been a 20 per cent drop in student visa applications, which was expected to cost the sector $1.2 billion and possibly 19,000 jobs. The debate today could well be seen as a confirmation of those facts and of the concerns at that time. Australia dropped from the No. 1 destination for Chinese students to the third most popular destination.

The world's educational establishments have become intensely competitive and this trend is not new. Long established and well-known universities have been marketing themselves around the world for decades. Members would have heard discussions about the value of an Oxford or a Cambridge education. Perhaps those with an American base would know the value placed on Harvard or Princeton degrees. These are not simply a tertiary qualification but a recommendation about the quality of the education that the graduate received. The same situation applies to other levels of education. In this competitive marketplace, Australia cannot afford to be left behind. Australia also cannot afford to be complacent about the treatment of foreign students when they visit our country to study.

The attacks on foreign students in recent years certainly did not help Australia's reputation, and, although not all were perpetrated by Australians, we must not tolerate a campaign directed against foreign students. It would help if all Australians were informed that these students are an income-earning industry. We have heard the figures; they provide jobs for Australian workers as well.

There is a question about the timing of the implementation of the proposals under this bill. Several universities raised concerns that rushing the required business restructure in order to comply with this bill might have negative impacts. That is why they have asked for a delay in implementation, a request the coalition supports. The amendment proposed by the coalition addresses this point.

The other issue of concern is the potential impact of these changes on those people who might seek permanent residency following their education. Recent reports in the media have identified that the immigration department could be flooded with applications for asylum from students whose study and bridging visas are about to expire. Tens of thousands of foreign students may well seek to try to extend their stays. This carries the risk of undermining the integrity of the immigration program. There was a 37 per cent increase in bridging visas last year, reaching some 92,000 in total. The government will need to be prepared for the potential impacts on the system.

These difficulties of visa applications can be highlighted by West Coast International College of English, an English language intensive course for overseas students, or ELICOS, college. West Coast International College of English is based in Bunbury in my electorate and is accredited for 36 visa-holding students. Run by Jenny Byatt, it is one of the smaller ELICOS colleges in Australia and is also the only one in Western Australia outside of Perth. Jenny has advised me that students seeking to study in her college frequently have problems getting visas, especially those from Thailand and Vietnam. Whilst the government may consider these to be high-risk destinations, Jenny assures me that she gets to know students personally and is certain that genuine applications have been rejected. This is an example of the pressure that the system places on applicants, on service providers and on the immigration department itself.

The department announced a review in March this year conducted by Michael Knight, and the student visa program review discussion paper is available on the department website. This review investigated the migration risk of student visa applicants and the demands on the department. It identified:

The rapid rise in international student numbers presented great challenges to DIAC officers, educational providers and regulators. A number of systems were strained. Ideally things could have been better. But it is usually the case that systemic changes tend to lag behind unprecedented growth in most human activities.

The report highlighted that generalisations which might cause problems were an inherent part of the current system:

The current student visa system consists of eight visa subclasses based on education sector plus a student guardian visa. The system manages risk by measuring immigration compliance performance of student visa holders by nationality against individual education sectors.

Such a system assumes that the risk of every student of the same nationality is similar. Anecdotal evidence suggests that high risk caseloads can develop in geographically compact areas of a country while other parts of the same country might be a lower risk.

Such a system also assumes that every provider within an education sector has similar risk attributes. Once again anecdotal evidence suggests that some institutions invest much greater effort in determining the academic suitability of the students to which they issue Confirmations of Enrolment or Letters of Offer.

Whilst it is obvious there is no perfect system, it is equally obvious that more can be done to ensure fairness and equity of access to international students while we maintain strong border controls and minimise migration risk. The adequate resourcing of the assessment process is certainly the best way to ensure just and timely outcomes.