I rise today to speak to the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009. We all know how important a good education is and, because of its importance, it is essential that we have strong legislation to ensure that all Australians receive the best education possible. We also have an obligation to international students studying in Australia to give them the best possible education while they are in our country. To that end, I am pleased to stand today to speak to this bill, in full support of the Rudd Labor government’s measures to establish a regulatory regime for the provision of international education by establishing minimum standards of tuition and financial assistance. This amendment bill ensures that the use of education agents by international education providers is both transparent and open to accountability.

I also look at this issue from a different perspective. A few years back, my son spent a year studying in Japan and so it is easy for me to comprehend how visiting students would feel overwhelmed when they first arrived in Australia. They need to deal with many day-to-day issues such as finding accommodation, learning the language and about our culture. They also need to learn about transport, usually the public system, and where to shop for food and other such day-to-day issues. Some may need to find employment to support themselves and to help pay for their tuition fees. There would be the issue of making friends and building a network for support. And then, as I said, they would have to work their way through the process of getting to college or university and finding the right lecture theatre, which is not always an easy task for natural born Australian students to do.

This bill seeks to improve the education system in place for international students. As a government, we have an obligation to ensure our education system is of high quality. This bill is one of the many steps that has been and will continue to be taken by the Rudd Labor government to strengthen that system. The Rudd government recognises the fact that there is always room for improvement and has been listening to what stakeholders want and need. The overseas education sector was responsible for putting $16.6 billion into our economy in the previous year. At a growth rate of 14 per cent per annum since 2002, this sector of the economy remains in good shape despite the global financial crisis. But this is not the only benefit to Australia of having a strong international education industry. The links between nations and the diplomatic networks are also very important, as is the opening up of new opportunities for trade or international business. The benefits we receive from these students are immeasurable and I firmly believe we are all the richer for their contribution to our society while they are in our country. In general, most education providers are highly regarded organisations that provide excellent qualifications and take an active interest in the welfare of their visiting students. Unfortunately, however, not all are like that.

I was able to listen to the beginning of Senator Cormann’s speech and I must say that I was surprised by his comment that the Rudd government was not giving this issue a high priority. I think that is a little bit disingenuous and I think there was a bit of spin there because towards the end of last year we were actually trying to move this bill as a non-controversial bill and the opposition would not allow that to happen. So we could have actually had it through the Senate quite a bit quicker.

I would like to take this opportunity to commend the Minister for Education, the Hon. Julia Gillard MP, on developing the international student roundtable initiative last year—just one of the initiatives that the Rudd Labor government has implemented. Up to 30 students participated in the roundtable and the Australian government met the costs of travel and accommodation for the selected participants. This roundtable was designed to reflect the wide diversity of nationalities and cultures of the 190 countries that provide the international students studying in Australia each year. It is important that the international students had an opportunity to discuss issues affecting their experience in Australia and to put forward their ideas on how to address these concerns. Of course, some of these concerns involve the issue of some training providers not doing the right thing. This roundtable, as I said, is another step in the Rudd government’s commitment to achieving the best possible education for all international students.

On 2 July last year, the Prime Minister and all state and territory leaders came together to announce the development of a comprehensive National International Students Strategy. This strategy will:

  • improve the experience for international students through better information before they arrive and then once in Australia;
  • improve the engagement of international students with the broader Australian community;
  • improve the safety of students through State and Territory police services;
  • enhance general educational offerings that develop cultural understanding, tolerance and language skills; and
  • ensure the quality of education providers.

The COAG agreement was developed from the Commonwealth, state and territory education ministers meeting on 12 June, where ministers also agreed to:

  • provide comprehensive information about studying and living and working in Australia;
  • target audits of education providers to quickly address any issues of the quality of education and training providers;
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  • design and implement the announced Tertiary Education Standards and Quality Agency (TESQA); and
  • bring forward the review of the Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Act which governs education providers to commence in 2009-10.

The Minister for Education, the Hon. Julia Gillard MP, also announced that Mr Bruce Baird would head up a review into the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000. Mr Baird handed his interim report to the government in December following an extensive consultation process with stakeholders. As well as education providers, the con-sultation process included receiving about 150 written submissions, discussions with embassies and also consideration of the recommendations of the international student roundtable. The review examined the tightening of registration requirements, the need to provide students with better information and the importance of sound complaints mechanisms.

I must just point out here that there is an obvious link, which has been mentioned by other senators in this place today, between education and migration. Yes, there have been some unscrupulous providers linking permanent residency to studying in Australia, but the Rudd government has never made that link. It is the unscrupulous providers that have done that.

This bill requires the reregistration of all institutions currently registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students. It will also provide clarification of some provisions and introduce processes that will lead to better accountability by international education and training providers under the National Code of Practice for Registration Authorities and Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2007. This bill is also designed to make a more transparent system for when international education providers use education agents.

The national code consists of nationally consistent standards to protect overseas students and the delivery of courses to those students by registered providers from the Commonwealth register. It is important to note that students must be studying a registered course to be eligible for a visa. So the course has to be registered for a student to get a study visa. The national code is legislated under the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 and in order to be registered an education provider must show that it complies with that code. Also, the relevant state or territory must be satisfied that a provider is fit and proper for the purpose of education before recommending registration. This bill is designed to restore public confidence in the quality of the international education sector and to reduce the number of high-risk providers currently registered or seeking registration.

Under this bill, two new criteria for registration must be met. Firstly, the provider must have the principal purpose of providing education and have demonstrated the capacity to deliver education of a satisfactory standard. We must be certain that the educational institutions providing courses to international students are able to legitimately advise potential students that their courses are of the highest possible standard. We also need our international students to know that the Australian government is committed to them and to protecting their interests. State governments have already begun the process of auditing providers and providers will be required to show that they have the best interests of the students at heart and are not motivated solely by the idea of profits. It is the aim to have all providers classified as high risk assessed for reregistration by 30 June 2010. As with any area, the majority of people and providers are, as I have said, doing the right thing. But there is always a small group that is not acting appropriately. As the government, we have a responsibility to ensure that operators that are not doing the right thing are penalised and the inappropriate behaviour is rectified. This bill is just one step that is necessary to clean up the international education sector, which has grown considerably and quickly.

The number of international students in higher education has grown from 21,000 in 1989 to over 250,000 in 2007 and there were over 500,000 enrolments in 2008-09, with most of the growth appearing in the vocational education and training sector, commonly known as the VET sector. International student enrolments in private VET colleges increased 60 per cent from 2005 to 2008. We have one-tenth of the world market for higher education and are the third most popular country—behind the United States and the UK—for English-speaking destinations. So you can see why it is important that education providers are clear on what is expected of them. They need to know that failure to meet those expectations will lead to them being shut down or penalised.

Under the national code, breaches can be penalised by conditional registration, suspension or cancellation of registration. This bill will require education providers to maintain a list of all people who are involved with overseas students or potential students. This will include people both within Australia and overseas. Publication of that list will be required as prescribed by the regulations. The interests of the students will be further protected by ensuring that agents have undertaken the prescribed training and that those agents are registered in their home country if that is required by law in that country. These regulations may also require providers to host a website that would enable students to make anonymous comments about their experience with agents. Obviously, we do not have jurisdiction over education agents overseas but we can try to ensure that they are ethical in their dealings. We have an obligation to the students to ensure that the agents are acting ethically and to make sure that Australian institutions do not use agents that put ethics last on their list.

This bill will strengthen the effectiveness of suspensions imposed on registered providers and will reduce the financial detriment that a provider may suffer as a result of a suspension. As a result of this bill, the minister will have the discretion to enable providers to solicit or accept money from students during the course of their suspension, because a suspension is not a closure and so we do not want educational institutions to go broke because they might be under suspension. The minister will be able to adjust the sanction based on the level of the breach and by taking into account other individual circumstances.

This bill will facilitate national uniformity in the regulatory actions taken by federal, state and territory education authorities involving the delivery of courses to international students. Under this proposed legislation, it will be possible for conditions imposed by state or territory authorities to be recognised and adopted by the Commonwealth at the time of effecting registration or at any stage following the registering of the provider on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students. This bill will also provide discretion to modify the duration or circumstances in which imposed conditions are to apply. As a result of this bill, the financial and regulatory burden on providers will be minimal in situations where the institution is making changes that will improve their business operations. This is only the case if the delivery of courses and outcomes for international students will not be affected. This bill will enable the regulations to prescribe the criteria to be taken into account when considering whether a particular course is a suitable alternative to the obligation otherwise imposed on a registered provider to give a refund of fees paid by a student.

Once this bill has been passed, the Commonwealth, states and territories will continue working with education providers to ensure the education system is working efficiently and effectively. So far there has been great cooperation between all parties and the government looks forward to that continuing. We owe all students, both Australian students and those from overseas, the best possible opportunities in education. It is our responsibility to care for these students while they are in our country, to value the contributions that they make to our economy and our society and, as well, to ensure that they get the best education they can. They deserve nothing less than that. Ours is known as the land of the fair go, and that is the minimum we should be accepting from the educational institutions. The Rudd government is committed to achieving this. I commend the bill to the Senate.