Thursday, 11 February 2010
Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-Registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009
Consideration of Senate Message
Consideration resumed from 8 February.
(1) Schedule 1, item 11, page 5 (after line 7), after subsection 9A(1), insert:
(1A) A designated authority for a State must use a risk-management approach when considering whether to recommend that an approved provider should be re-registered.
(2) Schedule 2, page 16 (after line 11), after item 5, insert:
5A 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”.
5B Subsection 29(2)
Omit “paragraph (1)(b)”, substitute “paragraphs (1)(aa) and (b)”.
(3) Schedule 2, page 16 (after line 16), after item 6, insert:
6A Section 46
After “course money”, insert “and certain consequential costs”.
That amendment (1) be agreed to.
This amendment is being agreed to as a result of debate and discussions in the Senate. The approach that the government has taken to this bill and to the area of international education generally has been a bipartisan one. We worked in a cooperative way with the member for Boothby when he was the opposition spokesperson for this area, and I think there is a shared understanding in this parliament that our international education sector is facing challenges. Those challenges include, firstly, the potential for pressure on international education because of the global financial crisis and global recession. Secondly, those challenges include the regulatory issues that have now presented, particularly in the vocational education and training sector. Obviously, we have seen an explosive growth in the number of international students. This has caused regulatory concerns, particularly concerns that we may have seen the growth of a number of shonky providers in international education. The government is therefore working strongly with state governments to address these registration issues and indeed this bill is part of that process.
Thirdly, our international education sector has obviously felt the impact of and been highly concerned about violent incidents, particularly involving Indian students in Victoria. This has led to an outpouring from this parliament of our very clear view as a nation that such violence is despicable and not to be tolerated. It has led to a policing response; it has also led to a Council of Australian Governments’ response, as we work collaboratively on an international student strategy and a better way of supporting and facilitating international students. I believe this work has generally proceeded in a bipartisan way and we have tried to take the same approach to this piece of legislation.
When this bill was first before the House of Representatives, we accepted some propositions put forward by the member for Boothby. In this amendment we are now accepting a further proposition put forward by the opposition. When this amendment was first suggested in the House, the resulting debate concluded that, given the states and territories have the responsibility for the reregistration process, the risk management concept needed to be developed and delivered by them. So everybody was on the same page that a risk management approach needed to be taken. The outstanding question in the House of Representatives debate resulted in the conclusion that this did not need a legislative backing; it was occurring through the work being done by states and territories. Indeed, all Australian governments supported the concept of risk management and agreed to it at the relevant ministerial council. Through the Joint Committee for International Education, detailed work regarding the reregistration process and the risk management approach was undertaken, and as soon as this bill is passed a consistent risk management approach will swing into action. States and territories have agreed to process the highest risk providers by 1 July and all providers by December 2010.
In the government’s view this amendment was not necessary, though of course we endorsed a risk management approach. But, in the interests of continuing the cooperation that there has been in this area, we have accepted the amendment which would formalise this approach. With the acceptance of this amendment, I would strenuously ask the opposition and the Senate to allow this bill to pass in a speedy fashion. We are now at the stage where further delay could jeopardise the delivery of the reregistration processes required by this bill, and jeopardising that reregistration process then jeopardises our ability to ensure that we can restore full confidence in the quality of each and every provider in international education. With those words, clearly the government is accepting the first amendment.
I will not delay the House for long. We have listened to the minister’s speech. Obviously, this is an amendment that the opposition sponsored in the Senate and that the member for Boothby, the former shadow minister, initiated in the first place. I will say just a few words about this amendment because I think we have a different view about the other amendments that are coming from the Senate.
The provision of education to overseas students in Australia is worth about $15.5 billion in export income and is our third largest export earner. It is critical that such a significant export be maintained. Concerning allegations have been made against some private education providers. Some students have reported, despite complying with all the requirements of studying in Australia, being asked by providers to pay additional fees over and above their agreed payments or risk having the college have their visas revoked. A series of training college closures in 2009 and a series of other related issues have contributed to a loss of confidence in our international education services, and our reputation as a high-quality provider is at risk because of the practices of some unscrupulous providers and education agents. Fraudulent practices can cause irreparable damage to this important industry, and it is time that the government matches its talk with the action needed to sort out these concerns.
Improving accountability not just of colleges and education agents but also of territory and state regulators is vital. This legislation was introduced in August last year two days before the minister announced her visit to India and, despite the minister reassuring the Indian government at length that the Rudd government was making moves to improve the quality of education services for overseas students, legislation has lingered for nearly seven months. The Rudd government could have acted more swiftly, by prioritising this legislation, to weed out the shonky operators from the majority of the solid performers and should have acted much sooner to reregister providers and leave out those that should not be part of this industry.
We support the requirement of reregistration of all education providers who are currently registered through the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students by December 2010. While we have acknowledged the legislation before us is a reasonable first step and will support it, we do not think it is as well targeted as it could and should be. This is why the coalition proposed some straightforward amendments aimed at tightening up the legislation and preventing students being duped by incompetent or dishonest providers. In particular, we introduced amendments aimed at ensuring regulatory bodies for a state follow a risk management approach when determining reregistration of providers. Risk management principles ought to cover areas such as the accreditation of employed staff and educational services, the length of time providers have been operating and a strengthened focus on financials. It is also critical that education agents are providing reliable and up-to-date information to prospective students.
I am pleased that the Senate last week supported our amendment that will push the states to commit to a more vigorous auditing process during the reregistration of providers and I am pleased that the government has accepted the amendment, as indicated by the minister today.
Question agreed to.
That amendments (2) and (3) be disagreed to.
These amendments are about inserting into the act the concept that, beyond the current fee refund guarantee that international students have as a result of our consumer protection framework, international students should also be able to get consequential costs. There is no definition of ‘consequential costs’, but obviously they could include the cost of travelling to Australia, the cost of accommodation and food, education agent expenses, travel and medical insurance costs, airport taxes, the cost of immunisations, domestic travel costs, the costs of books and computers, and other education expenses. There is no definition, so consequently there is no way of costing the financial impost of these amendments.
Consequently, the government opposes these amendments on two grounds. Firstly, they are premature because the underlying consumer protection framework for international students is the subject of a review by Mr Bruce Baird, who of course is known to the House as a former Liberal member of this parliament. We created the Baird review in advance of time. Such a review was recommended by the Bradley review of higher education and we decided to expedite it. We put it into the hands of Mr Bruce Baird because we have confidence in him to deal with this issue and we also believe that he can command the confidence of both sides of the House.
So, firstly, this is premature. We first need to get the work from the Baird review. Secondly, on fiscal grounds these amendments cannot be agreed to. They are not costed. They would put an unknowable burden on Australian taxpayers in circumstances where Australian students who go overseas to study do not get the benefits of the kind of consumer protection we already have—let alone a consumer protection framework like that extended by these amendments. I simply do not believe that it is appropriate to put on the shoulders of Australian taxpayers the costs flowing from these amendments when they are unknowable.
From time to time in this parliament we hear questions raised by the shadow Treasurer, in particular, about debt, deficit and unfunded promises. In fact, we heard that as recently as yesterday. The simple truth about these amendments is they are not costed and they are not funded. If they were agreed to, there are only so many ways in which they could be funded. The opposition would have to identify which taxes it believed should be increased to fund these amendments, it would have to identify which other government expenditures it believed should be cut back to free money up to support these amendments, or it would have to acknowledge that by its conduct it is increasing debt and deficit. Those things are not prudent fiscal approaches and they will not be agreed to by this government.
On the question of a timely response in international education, can I say to the member for Sturt: it becomes a bit difficult for the opposition to complain about delay and to then cause delay. These amendments were moved in the Senate by Senator Xenophon. I would have thought the prudent course for the opposition—given that the amendments were new, uncosted and unfunded—would have been to not support the amendments. We are obviously now asking the Senate to not support uncosted, unfunded amendments, putting additional burdens on the shoulders of hardworking Australian taxpayers and, of course, prejudging the Baird review, which is going to provide the government and, indeed, the parliament with further detailed advice about what, if any, additional steps need to be taken in our consumer protection framework.
The coalition supported the amendments moved by Senator Xenophon and the Greens in the Senate which would enable the government to make arrangements for consequential costs incurred by the victims of collapsed private training colleges. At the moment, only direct losses of fees paid can be compensated under the fund. We support these amendments because they are about providing some appropriate protections for students who are caught up, through no fault of their own, in the collapse of these colleges. While the minister tried to tell us that these amendments are ill-considered and that they could not commit to such costs, I would make the point that these amendments simply provide the minister with the power to make regulations to provide for consequential losses for students where there has been a collapse of a college.
We do realise that further amendments may be likely in the near future, especially once the Baird review—chaired by my former colleague and very good former member for Cook—which will further look at this legislation, has reported. But the Rudd government should immediately pass this important legislation with the amendments provided by the Senate to improve the quality of education services for overseas students in Australia. The coalition does not agree to the motion moved by the Minister for Education that the Senate amendments moved by Senator Xenophon and the Greens be disagreed to.
Question agreed to.