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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5674

Senator CARR (10:39 AM) — The Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment Bill 2002 before us today is one that the opposition will be supporting. It makes a number of relatively minor amendments to the education services for overseas students regime, which forms the basis of the regulation of Australia's international education industry. However, in speaking to this bill I would like to make a few points about the state of the international education industry in this country. Given that the industry now contributes some $4 billion to our export revenue, I think it is one that this parliament should consider from time to time. It is now one of the most significant contributors to Australia's export industries.

I am pleased to say that this is an area to which the opposition has been able to devote considerable time over recent years. In many ways it highlights to the cynics in our midst and at large that this is an example of where parliament does matter. We are able to use the forms of the parliament, through the Senate estimates committee and through this chamber, to force change. We now have a situation in which the government has responded to the concerns of the opposition and the industry. The industry, of course, has been only too happy to talk to the opposition about effecting change, and that has resulted in new legislation and, in fact, a whole new regulatory regime. To this extent, I think the government has moved very much closer to the opposition's views on this matter. In this way, we have the development of what seems to be a much higher level of bipartisanship on this question than there was a few years ago.

I think it has also been affected by the changes that have occurred within the department itself, with new personnel working in the department, and by the change in philosophy that has occurred in the department and the government. When these matters were first pursued, I recall government senators, ministers and some in the sector saying that the opposition was damaging the industry by drawing to public attention some of the problems. That is not said so often now. I think it is understood that to have a strong international education industry this country needs an extremely strong quality assurance regime that is internationally recognised as rigorous and transparent.

In making these points, I draw attention to some of the issues that still concern me. I begin by drawing attention to the shocking tragedy that occurred at Monash University two days ago. I am sure that all senators would be in agreement in expressing their horror at this event and would wish to extend their deepest sympathies to the families of the dead students and to the students who have been injured in this shocking attack. Like many of us, I am amazed at the bravery of the lecturer and the students who disarmed the gunman and at the way in which the students have responded to this at Monash University. In the context of this bill, I note that charges have now been laid for murder. As such, I do not want to comment on the matters that are before the courts.

I would like to comment, though, on a newspaper report in the Melbourne Age yesterday concerning a fourth-year student in the honours degree program in economics at Monash University. It said that the student was struggling with the English language; in fact, the article suggested that this was a contributing factor to the shootings that occurred. The student was due to give an oral presentation to the class on the day that these events occurred. It is argued that the student was suffering from extreme stress. I am not one who runs the argument that people are misunderstood in these circumstances. As far as I am concerned, these are matters for the court, and the full weight of the law should be brought against people in these things.

I want to make a couple of points. The student concerned had been studying at Monash University for four years. According to the AVCC guidelines which exist now— and they also existed four years ago—and according to the Commonwealth guidelines, a student whose English language skills are insufficient to undertake a course successfully should not have been enrolled. It would appear, on the material that has been made available to us, that not only did Monash University enrol a student whose English skills were not up to standard but the English skills of the student had not improved in a period of four years.

In fact, it would appear that the student had been enrolled in an honours course but could not meet the basic English language requirements. I think we are entitled to ask what Monash University is doing allowing a situation like this to develop. Is this the only case where students who are enrolled in programs do not have the necessary English skills to complete them? How widespread is the problem of inadequate English language skills within our international student programs?

I note that in the court in Melbourne yesterday the magistrate had to have the charges read out by a Chinese interpreter. I also note that the question of students with inadequate English language skills was the subject of an Auditor-General's report in Melbourne in April this year, which indicated that a majority of Victorian academics believe that the foreign students they teach do not have sufficient competency in English. A survey of nearly 360 academics in Victoria's three biggest universities revealed that 66 per cent considered that English language entry requirements were set too low for international students. The Auditor-General pointed out that academics found it difficult to assess the written work of students with underdeveloped English skills and that they should be given greater guidance in such assessment.

This is obviously a question that the Labor Party have been pursuing, and we have expressed our concern about this over a considerable period of time. I raised the matter through the report Universities in crisis, and I note that the government have yet to respond to that—days and days after we were told that they would be responding to it. We are waiting for the government to address that particular issue. We would like to know what action the government has taken to ensure that universities and other education providers do not accept for enrolment international students who have had inadequate English language preparation. There is a question here about the quality of programs being provided. If we have students who do not speak English graduating from our domestic campuses then it undermines all students who gain the same qualifications.

I think we are entitled to ask that the government ensures that education providers meet their responsibilities to ensure that there is sufficient support with the English language and that students who do not have the English language skills one would expect are not awarded those qualifications. In the past the government has sought to deny its responsibilities with regard to international education. Senator Tierney has joined us now. He has often pointed out to me that I was on fishing expeditions and that illegal and dodgy behaviour by crooks was a matter that we should not be concerned about. I have always said, and I will repeat, that the overwhelming number of people involved in international education are of the highest quality and our education institutions are of the highest quality. But the problem remains that a few dishonest operators are using colleges for immigration rorts and visa scams and are bringing people here. It is a people-smuggling exercise and it can undermine the entire industry. By ripping off students in this way these operators can undermine the qualifications of all students.

There are a number of notorious examples one could point to. I am sure that Senator Tierney would remember the case that I raised of the G-Quest Institute of Advanced Learning. That was a case that was drawn to the attention of Commonwealth officers as a result of a complaint received from an overseas student, who said that she went down to have a look at the college and it physically did not exist. It was a vacant block of land. What did the department do about this? They did not smell a rat, of course—nothing silly like that! They made sure a refund was organised, which was very big of them!

The nature of that college and how it got registration was something I think we ought to be more rigorous about. There were several rounds of Senate estimates before the department woke up to the problem. There were extraordinary numbers of unscrupulous operators in our major capital cities, particularly on the eastern seaboard, who were using so-called students to work illegally. They were using falsified attendance records. Recently in Sydney printers were charged because they were printing up bodgie qualifications, academic transcripts of results and various other documents necessary to essentially perpetuate a scam. Those persons have been charged under the Crimes Act and I understand they are being processed through the courts. These are examples of what has happened, and we have been raising such matters for some time.

This government likes to talk tough about border protection. It likes to talk about drastic action being taken against asylum seekers but it does not do sufficient work, in my opinion, to ensure that those people who arrive here on aeroplanes with student visas and who have gained those illegitimately and improperly are dealt with. It has not done sufficient work, in my judgment, to make sure that the bodgie providers—who are undermining the industry and who are not approaching this industry on the basis of a level playing field, because they are getting an unfair advantage economically and in many other ways—are forced out. My concern is that the government has not taken sufficient steps to force changes in that regard.

We do acknowledge that changes have occurred and, as I say, the government has moved forward by introducing the new regime last year. We are looking forward to the review in 2003 that the government has announced and we are keen to know how the new legislative framework is standing up to the pressure that invariably occurs. As I say, this is a bit like tax avoidance. You need to be constantly vigilant. The same bodgie operators seem to reappear in one guise or another, involving new groups of people. They are taking in all sorts of gullible people, including people now within the university sector itself who have gone into partnerships with some of these bodgie operators in the quest for additional student numbers without doing the proper checks and review of their own operations. These are points that have been raised in the Senate estimates hearings and demonstrated to be correct—despite the denials, I might add, of some of these companies who have written to me and no doubt to the Privileges Committee, and I am looking forward to yet another hearing on that.

Despite the fact that ads are placed in newspapers, some simple devices can be used to establish that these events have occurred—that is, that a number of universities have fallen for these bodgie operators. That is why we welcome the changes that have occurred and the change in attitude. We will remain vigilant and we will continue to place pressure on the government to ensure that there is a follow-through to look behind the state accreditations. All too often the government is still relying upon being told that certain things are all right and is not following through to ensure that the decisions taken at other levels of government are in fact followed through. The capacity to enter colleges to ascertain whether the ESOS Act is being contravened; the seizure of documents, computer records and other things; the demand for information or records, and an improvement in student record keeping are all things we support. However, they have to be enforced. That is why we are concerned about recent events. In the time remaining to me I will go to some of those issues.

We have had about 100 colleges close down in the last year or so. Of the 30 or so colleges that I have named, my understanding is that about 25 of them are now out of business. We have a reasonable strike rate record in naming people who have done the wrong thing, having them investigated and having them forced out of the industry. But it should not be up to senators and the resources of a senator's office to produce this. I am concerned that further actions be taken by the department to show that they too are concerned. I understand there are some six colleges currently under investigation over compliance issues, and I would like to hear from the department about what progress is being made on the six colleges that were named in the last round of Senate estimates—because we have yet to see work in that regard.

We have had the example recently of the Australian College of Technology, which collapsed in August and owed $1 million to students and creditors. The academic director of this college was a Michael Megas. This is a man widely known in the international education industry. I understand he had been convicted for embezzlement while working for other industries. He and the chief executive of the college, Mr Nabil Nasr, have been convicted for embezzlement of funds. Both the key players in the college had criminal records involving dishonesty. Yet they managed to get a licence and run an international college, and only when it collapsed was any attention paid to their past record. These were people who were able to operate under the old rules because the `fit and proper person' test was different under the old rules from what it is under the new rules. This is an area in which we need to move. We need to find a mechanism to make sure that those crooks who are operating in the industry and who are able slip under the regulatory regime are encouraged to get out.

We have had the example of the Sydney International College. The proprietor of that college, Mr Phillip Lobo, claimed a doctorate in business administration which, as I understand it, he bought on the Internet from an institution known as Harrington University. Quite clearly, by purchasing his qualifications on the Internet—running an educational institution and claiming that he has a doctorate—he was misleading potential students and their families.

Then there was a private school in Queensland, the Kooralbyn International School, which collapsed. At that school there were 132 international students displaced. If my memory serves me rightly, a number of those students could not be found. There was some $400,000 in paid-up fees. They had to be bailed out by the state education department in Queensland. Because the current act does not require institutions that are in receipt of recurrent funds from the Commonwealth government to be part of the TAS, the Tuition Assurance Scheme, those students could not call upon the protection of this regulatory regime. That is another area that requires further attention.

There are questions that require further action and, while this bill proposes relatively minor changes, the 2003 review provides the opportunity for more extensive changes to be entertained. They go to, for instance, the relationship between private colleges and the universities, the issue of institutions that receive recurrent funding but are currently exempted from the ESOS provisions, and the question of the fit and proper persons test and the means by which we can ensure that persons who are not genuine educators and who are not genuinely running educational businesses and who have serious criminal records can be excluded from the industry.

This bill is a development on the regime that we have seen and has come about as a result of parliamentary discussion. This is a point that can never be underestimated. It is an occasion where we can demonstrate that the parliament does work. The bill is essentially technical and it does provide for additional powers for the Commonwealth to act. These are measures we support. However, we do think that further action needs to be taken. The bill also needs to be seen in the context of a staging post in that regard. We place the government on notice that our interest in international education is not declining. (Time expired)