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Thursday, 10 May 2012
Page: 4504

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Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (10:11): I am pleased to speak today on the Migration» Legislation Amendment (Student Visas) Bill 2012, which contains measures that will cease the automatic cancellation regime currently in place for student visa holders who breach the academic progress or attendance requirements of their student visa.

I would like to commence by making some observations about the importance of the international education sector to the Australian economy but also to my electorate of Throsby in the Illawarra and Southern Highlands of New South Wales. The international education sector makes a very substantial contribution to the health of our education system and is a major Australian economic and social success story, one little understood by too many, including some in this place. The education services sector is an important part of the economy. It is now our largest services export and ranks fourth of all of our exports after coal, iron ore and gold. That is a fact little known by many, as well. The quality product we are able to offer international students is possible because of the quality of our domestic education institutions and the quality of the education we offer to Australians. However, this cannot be taken for granted. We need to be continually on our game to ensure that we are maintaining quality standards, including the standards around which we admit and retain students on student visas.

According to research done by Australian Education International, international education activity contributed $19.1 billion in export income to the Australian economy in 2009-10. I know of the importance of this sector, in part, because of the presence of the highly successful exporter of international education services in my electorate—that is, the University of Wollongong, my alma mater. Over my lifetime I have seen this university transform into the world-class leader in education services that it is today. The university attracts students from more than 140 countries around the world, has campuses overseas and, as at December 2010, had over 27,000 international students enrolled at its onshore and offshore campuses. So the University of Wollongong is in itself making a major contribution to that $19.1 billion export income to the Australian economy—not only that but the University of Wollongong is a also a major driver of regional development in the Illawarra. Whatever we can do in this place to sustain and develop these services and the regulation of international education, and in turn the facilities offered by the University of Wollongong, is good for the transformation of the Illawarra economy. By way of background to this bill, in December 2010, the government appointed the Hon. Michael Knight AO to conduct the first strategic review of the student visa program to enhance the quality, integrity and competitiveness of the student visa program. I might observe that the Knight review has received almost universal support across all of the major stakeholders and commentators on this issue. One noted political journalist and commentator of long standing described this as 'picture-perfect policy development and reporting process' and something that should be adopted in other areas of policy development in this particularly troubled area.

A principal focus of the Knight review report is on improved integrity measures in the student visa program. To this end, the Knight review recommended that the automatic cancellation of student visas be abolished and replaced with a more targeted and strategic analysis of noncompliance.

Student visa holders are subject to a number of visa conditions that reflect the intention of the student visa program. Key to the integrity of the program is visa condition 8202, that requires international students to maintain course progress and attendance in class. The ability of a student visa holder to maintain course progress and attendance is considered an indicator of their genuine engagement in studies. Of course, under the previous government, there was obviously a lack of quality control in this area. There were many, many instances where it was quite obvious that people had accessed the student visa program and were purportedly enrolled in courses with poor quality control and poor attendance control, and it was quite clear that these were being used essentially as a visa shop to enable these students to gain entrance into Australia for other purposes. So to hear the member for Canning, as I just did, make observations about the quality controls under this government and this minister does beggar belief when it was under their watch that this program really did get out of control.

Providers are now required to monitor the course progress of their international students and their attendance in class under the provisions of the national code, and that is a legal instrument under the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000. While providers are required to define their own policies in relation to course progress or attendance, at a minimum they must intervene to assist an international student who has failed more than 50 per cent of the units attempted in any one study period, or who is at risk of failing to attend between 70 and 80 per cent of total course contact hours—and this goes to the very heart of the quality standards that are necessary to maintain the reputation and the integrity of not only the international education system but the visa program as well.

Where a provider assesses the international student as not achieving satisfactory course progress or attendance, they must report them for a breach of condition 8202. Under the current regime, an education provider is required under section 19 of the ESOS Act to report breaches of student visa condition 8202 to the Secretary of the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science, Research and Tertiary Education. The provider must give the student 20 working days notice in which to access the complaints and appeals processes. The provider is then required to notify the student visa holder of the breach under section 20 of the act. It is this notification that triggers the application of automatic cancellation provisions under the «Migration» Act.

The notice requires the student visa holder to attend an office of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship within 28 days of the date of the notice to make submissions about the breach. If the student visa holder does not comply with the notice, their visa is automatically cancelled under the «Migration» Act by operation of the law at the end of the 28th day after the notice is given. Consequentially, any family dependant visa holders would also have their visas cancelled. International students whose visas are automatically cancelled are subject to an exclusion period for applying for further visas for up to three years.

Both the Knight review and the ANAO report have recommended the abolition of the automatic cancellation regime. The Knight review found that the automatic cancellation regime gives education providers extraordinary power over international students. It argued that the increase in automatic cancellations in recent years has been driven, in part, by the emergence of some providers who will use automatic cancellation mechanisms carelessly or even maliciously. It also found that the process is deleterious for some genuine international students who require help and monitoring rather than having their visas cancelled. Further, it found that the regime was hindering the effective use of compliance resources. In short, it was found that this was an inefficient and inappropriate way to deal with the matter at heart.

This factor was echoed in the ANAO report, which noted systematic flaws and vulnerabilities in the regime. The ANAO has also shared the views of the Knight review in respect of resource-intensive processes that the regime requires, whereby integrity and compliance units must respond to every education provider report rather than pursue targeted areas of compliance concern.

The Australian community expects that there be consequences if a student visa holder breaches a condition of their visa. However, the automatic cancellation provisions fail to account properly for the severity of the breach that has actually occurred. The lack of discretion imposes unnecessary administrative costs on international students, education providers and the government.

It creates uncertainty and complexity for student visa holders. The regime provides no discretion for a decision maker to distinguish between a genuine student visa holder who may be struggling academically and one who deliberately breaches the conditions of their student visa. Critically, the automatic cancellation regime directs government resources away from pursuing more egregious student visa breaches. That is the purpose of the legislation.

So the measures in this bill will amend the ESOS Act to remove the requirement under section 20 for a registered education provider to send a notice to a student visa holder who breaches condition 8202 of their student visa. It is intended that on or after the day the amendments in this bill commence registered education providers will no longer be required, or able, to send a notice under section 20 of the act. As a consequence, student visas will no longer be subject to automatic cancellation under the «Migration» Act. Instead, a student visa holder who breaches a visa condition by not achieving satisfactory course progress or not achieving satisfactory course attendance will be considered under the existing discretionary cancellation framework in the «Migration Act. Under this framework, the education provider would still be required to report a breach of a prescribed condition of a student visa under section 19 of the ESOS Act. Details of the reported breach would be considered by DIAC for possible compliance action.

The absence of automatic cancellation will not mean that such breaches will be taken any less seriously. In addition to following up on breaches of attendance and course progress, DIAC will be able to better prioritise other reports that may indicate serious noncompliance, including where international students fail to even commence their course. DIAC will be working with the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education to develop targeted reports to assist in identifying all types of breaches associated with the student visa program and targeting those that represent the highest risk. This bill will also make necessary consequential amendments to the ESOS Act to require an education provider to give particulars of any change in contact details or other prescribed details of student visa holders within 14 days after the provider becomes aware of those changes.

Upon the passage of this legislation, student visa holders will no longer have their visas automatically cancelled. These changes will provide for a fairer, merits-based cancellation process and will allow integrity and compliance resources to be more targeted to areas of high risk, and this is something that I am sure the Australian community would expect of any government.

I conclude by making the observation that there were many important recommendations that have been made in the Knight review. They go to other international education providers within my electorate. I have in mind one provider of high school education, St Paul's International College at Moss Vale. It has been in existence for several decades and provides an excellent service. It is well supported and respected in the community. I see the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth at the table now. He knows through his own responsibilities—of course, he is very familiar with the Southern Highlands region—what an excellent school it is. So I encourage the minister—and I have met with representatives of St Paul's, with the minister and with officers of the minister on numerous occasions—to pursue the other recommendations that have been made within the Knight review posthaste to ensure that that this school can continue to offer an excellent service, be a great employer of teachers in the Southern Highlands and provide a quality Australian education experience for all of the students that are coming to that excellent school, particularly from China, Korea and South-East Asia, so that they can take home with them when they have completed their studies a wonderful experience of Australia into the future. I commend the legislation to the House and I again congratulate the minister for his response to this important review.