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Tuesday, 28 June 1994
Page: 2119

Senator TIERNEY (6.08 p.m.) —I support the remarks of Senator Zakharov. As she pointed out, it has indeed been a particularly worthwhile exercise that is at last reaching fruition after several years of operation. It is very important that the committee and this parliament go through this process because we are dealing with one of the most important and rapidly growing export industries in this country. Since we first considered the legislation, the size of the educational export market has grown from 800 million a year to almost 1,500 million. With this almost exponential growth it is very important that the legislative framework that is put in to support such an industry is put in correctly.

  When I entered this parliament in 1991 I was somewhat alarmed to find the government—at that stage alarmed by its experience with Chinese students after the Tiananmen massacres—bringing in an inappropriate piece of legislation which was draconian in nature. The minister finally backed down and agreed to almost 30 coalition amendments. So we had a piece of legislation which was better than what was proposed, but it was not perfect at that time.

  Since then the industry has developed and matured and there have been a number of regulations and changes to tighten up provisions of the act. What we have just been considering is perhaps the final major tightening of the act. Here again, as in 1991, the government really decided to go too far and, with the initial tuition assurance scheme, proposed another draconian piece of legislation which would have required all providers to belong to one tuition assurance scheme—to take out insurance and to therefore add to the costs of an industry that is highly price competitive internationally. This would have not only put an onerous administrative burden on them but also put up their costs to the point where, in some markets, they may not have been competitive.

  We have all heard—and Senator Bell and the Australian Democrats have heard—quite a lot from the industry, both in correspondence to us and more recently in the submissions before the hearing, on what its concerns were. It was very disturbing therefore that DEET over this period was not listening. It was not until last Friday, when we drew all the parties together, and the Department of Employment, Education and Training was under the Damocles sword of a disallowance motion moved by Senator Bell, that it really came to the negotiating table properly. It listened to what the industry was suggesting and came up with a much more sensible tuition assurance scheme.

  We have moved away from having one draconian scheme across Australia that everyone joins to a position that is much more decentralised and deregulated. The key element of the whole scheme is that the providers, through their national associations, can set up a tuition assurance arrangement and make sure that any students disadvantaged by the collapse of a college can be actually placed. That is probably the most important measure of the lot to come out of recent negotiations. They cannot join an association until they agree to take part in a voluntary student placement scheme. I believe that answers most of the government's concerns.

  In this proposal there is also the possibility for providers of unique courses, such as theology—which over 100 years have an excellent track record in this field—to be exempt. There is provision for new players to come into the industry to provide, by bank guarantee or insurance, the guarantee for tuition assurance.

  As recently as this morning I had a telephone call from one of the major industry players saying they are quite pleased with the negotiations to date; but are concerned about what might happen from this point on over the winter break. They still do not totally trust DEET. I can understand that, given the history of the last 18 months.

  Therefore, it was very heartening for the committee to receive today, through the mechanism of a letter from the minister, Simon Crean, an assurance on how this process will develop from this point. I seek leave to table the letter from the minister, Simon Crean, and the record of the DEET/ industry meeting. I did check this with Senator Sherry 10 minutes ago. He was the predecessor in the chamber of the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (Senator Bolkus), who is sitting opposite.

  Leave granted.

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Colston)—We might refer to the minister as Mr Crean.

Senator TIERNEY —Fine. The industry still has some worries about the final form of the tuition assurance scheme and is waiting to see that final form. I believe that Senator Bell will be moving that the timing of his disallowance motion be extended so that we can come back and look at this matter in August. By that time the industry will have had time to consult with DEET and DEET will have had time to make the necessary adjustment to the legislation and the regulations, particularly concerning the tuition assurance scheme. Things will then be in place for this industry to proceed.

  Finally, I would like to say that this process, although long and drawn out, has really shown the power of this Senate to consider and alter inappropriate legislation. There are mechanisms in the Senate which will bring the government back to consider a matter, to have the government not only listen to members of the Senate but also listen to what the industry is saying.

  I commend Senator Bell for moving the disallowance motion that put this in place and to Senator Hill, who moved that this matter be considered by the Senate standing committee which I think did an excellent job in the last few days in putting together a form of tuition assurance most appropriate for this industry. Under this new form of legislation this industry, which has already contributed so much to Australia, will thrive and prosper and will become one of our great export earners.