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Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Page: 9446

Mr FLETCHER (BradfieldMinister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts) (12:20): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Today I introduce the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Refunds of Charges and Other Measures) Bill 2020 which amends the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000(the ESOS Act). The bill reflects the Morrison government's commitment to support the international education sector by cutting red tape to open new market opportunities for education providers, while expanding the study options available for international students.

In 2019, international education contributed $40 billion to our economy and supported around 250,000 jobs.

Border measures introduced to control COVID-19 have meant some students have been unable to return to Australia to resume their studies after travelling home for holidays and Chinese New Year and new students have been unable to come to Australia to begin their studies.

If we are to support the recovery of this important industry, our fourth largest export, we must continue to be one of the most sought-after study destinations in the world. We must respond to student demand and adapt the regulatory environment to help education providers to deliver new products.

This bill builds on measures the Morrison government has already put in place to support the international education sector, including significant regulatory and fee relief.

The government has asked the education regulators, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency and the Australian Skills Quality Authority, to offer maximum flexibility to providers so they can respond to students' circumstances and needs. This has allowed providers to introduce flexible tuition options and deliver operations online where necessary, helping to minimise disruption to international students' education.

The bill complements the government's budget commitment to 50,000 additional places for short courses providing Australians with the opportunity to retrain or upskill during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This bill will enable education providers to provide access to a wide range of supplementary courses, including short duration courses and microcredentials for overseas students, increasing the attractiveness of Australia as a study destination. It will create opportunities for Australian education providers to expand their business and boost the availability of skilled workers as our economy recovers. This bill clarifies the intention of the ESOS Act by aligning the definition of 'course' with the established regulatory frameworks in place for formal education qualifications in Australia and provides a mechanism for the minister to include or exempt courses where appropriate to reduce the regulatory burden on education providers, while maintaining our strong student protections.

This bill forms part of the Morrison government's deregulation agenda, and will cut red tape to save over $2 million annually for the international education industry.

The bill will clarify and improve the regulation of courses and allow charges collected under the ESOS Act to be refunded in special circumstances.

The ESOS Act provides important protections for students. It ensures rigorous standards are applied to any course delivered to international students, above the existing strong domestic regulations. It protects international students' investment in an Australian education and upholds the integrity of the visa system. These requirements will remain. Overseas students will continue to receive these protections, including consumer protection provided through Australia's unique Tuition Protection Service, for their substantive course of study.

However, these extensive requirements need not apply to some short-duration courses that are low cost and supplementary to a student's main course of study. For example, students seeking to work or do further training in the hospitality, construction, retail and healthcare sectors require specific qualifications, including first aid and barista courses, responsible service of alcohol, hygienic food preparation, infection control and construction white cards.

This bill will also provide a mechanism to act quickly to support the international education sector in times of emergency or extreme financial stress in the sector. If an event similar to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic happens in the future, provisions in this bill will support education providers by allowing refunds of the charges they pay for registration on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students to deliver courses to international students.

As part of the Higher Education Relief Package announced on 12 April 2020, the government has already provided more than $10.9 million in regulatory fee relief to the education and training providers to help them adapt and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This has helped providers to invest in retaining staff or reshaping their offerings to suit the current environment.

Part 1 of the bill amends the ESOS Act to allow for Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students, or CRICOS, charges paid by providers to be refunded in special circumstances from 1 July 2021.

These provisions will enable the provision of rapid and sector-wide support to CRICOS providers in special circumstances, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. Generally, such circumstances would be characterised by unexpected events or situations, across the sector, creating undesirable or anomalous outcomes that could be improved or remedied by refunds of charges. The refund power would be at the discretion of the secretary and exercised on behalf of the Commonwealth. It will not apply to administrative errors, like returning overpayments, as that power already exists. Similarly, this amendment will not exempt providers from the charges, as there are existing provisions under theEducation Services for Overseas Students (Registration Charges) Regulations 2011that exempt new and existing providers from the requirement to pay CRICOS charges.

Part 2 of the bill amends the ESOS Act to refine the definition of 'course', which was outdated and too broad.

The new definition more explicitly aligns ESOS with the established regulatory frameworks in place for formal education qualifications in Australia. Vocational education and training courses, higher education courses, school courses, ELICOS, and foundation programs will remain in the scope of ESOS. The changes mean that all other courses which do not align to domestic, state or territory quality education frameworks will not be included within the scope of ESOS.

A further provision enables the minister responsible for international education to make a disallowable legislative instrument to include and exempt certain courses from the ESOS Act requirements. This will allow the minister to add or remove exempt courses as needed, in response to emerging issues in the sector, while ensuring appropriate parliamentary oversight. The purpose of these amendments is to make it easier for overseas students to study courses that are supplementary to their main course of study.

International students will not be able to apply for student visas based solely on these courses but can take them alongside their main course of study.

The new arrangements enabled by this bill create opportunities for education providers to enter a global market in an emerging form of education, opening new markets and potential business opportunities. It will provide assurance to students that they can choose to study a supplementary course that complements their primary field of study, reflects their personal interests or improves their employability while in Australia These arrangements ensure that the government can act swiftly to refund CRICOS charges in special circumstances, should this be required.

In summary, the measures in this bill will reduce red tape, simplify the regulatory environment and create flexibility to respond to special circumstances with regulatory relief.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.