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Thursday, 15 September 2011
Page: 6209

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (13:18): I move amendment (1) on sheet 7145 standing in my name:

(1)   Schedule 1, page 6 (after line 2), after item 11, insert:

       11A Paragraph 29(1)(a)

      Omit "less", substitute "plus

      (aa) the total of the prescribed amounts relating to expenses incurred by the student in connection with the course; less".

       11B Subsection 29(2)

      Omit "paragraph (1)(b)", substitute "paragraphs (1)(aa) and (b)".

   11C Section 46

      After "course money", insert "and certain consequential costs".

In my contribution to the second reading debate, I set out in part the reasons this amendment should be supported. At the nub of this issue is the fact that currently, under section 48 of the act, tuition fees can be refunded to students who miss out in the event that a school collapses. This amendment seeks to give the minister the discretion to go further than that so that students can cover out-of-pocket expenses—visa fees, rental bonds due to rental agreements that might have been broken if a student had to go back home, and other consequential losses in respect of a school collapse.

I think it is important to put this in context. This is about giving confidence to those international students who study here and to their families, many of whom make enormous sacrifices to send their children here to Australia. I have seen reports in relation to many families in India, for instance, who saved everything and borrowed money so their kids could get a quality education here in Australia to give them the opportunity to have the best of what we have to offer. In those circumstances, a refunding of the student tuition fees is just not good enough. We should give these families the confidence that in the rare event of the collapse of a college or school they can get something more than that. This amendment is not radical, in that it gives the minister discretion as to the extent of the compensation payable. If we want to encourage and expand confidence in our international student education sector in this country, this would send a very strong message. Those parents in India, in Indonesia, in China or wherever they are from will be able to say, 'At least if something does go wrong we will not be left with long-term debt or suffer great financial hardship.'

It is important to note that in 2009 the then education minister, now the Prime Minister, said in her second reading speech to the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill:

We want our international visitors who come here to study to know that the Government is looking after their interests.

If that is the case, then repaying international students the costs associated with their education in the unlikely event that their school closes down is the right thing to do. I should add that the strengthened regulations, in theory, reduce the likelihood of there being a shonky operator.

Why would there be a problem with supporting this measure? This measure is sensible, will strengthen confidence in the sector and will encourage more students to come and study in this nation. Because of the regulations proposed in this bill, the need for the ESOS Assurance Fund to step in should be unlikely. This amendment will send a message to potential international students that, as the Prime Minister said, we are looking after their interests. It will help rebuild and strengthen our reputation and attract international students back to Australia. Let's face it: the number of international students is down—389,601 enrolments as of March this year by full-fee-paying international students in Australia on a student visa. This represents an 8.7 per cent decline on the same period in 2010. That is a significant drop. In June 2009 there were almost 500,000 enrolments. It is important that we support this. I cannot understand why, given that there will be a stronger regulatory framework, the government does not even want the power to set regulations to provide a greater degree of certainty for international students. The government could have it capped, for instance. The government could say that there could be a lump sum cap on payments. It might be $2,000, $5,000 or whatever. It would at least give more assurance to our international students. I cannot understand why, given the context of this bill and a strengthened regulatory environment, which I commend the governĀ­ment for, the government does not even want the minister to have some regulatory powers to give greater levels of compensation than merely tuition fees, which is just not good enough for those parents of international students who give their all, take out loans and make considerable sacrifices to send their children here to Australia.