House debates

Wednesday, 3 July 2024


Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Quality and Integrity) Bill 2024; Second Reading

6:48 pm

Photo of Cassandra FernandoCassandra Fernando (Holt, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Quality and Integrity) Bill 2024. Australia has one of the best higher education systems in the world. International education is a vital part of supporting the system and spreading innovation. International education is one of Australia's largest exports, adding $48 billion to the economy. This is only outstripped by our exports in coal, iron and gas. It serves as a crucial pillar of our economy and society, offering huge benefits, not only in economic terms but also in the cultural and social dimensions. It's important from a geopolitical perspective and it makes us friends all over the world.

International education is more than just a significant economic driver; it is also our largest source of permanent migration. Students who come to Australia for their degrees and who learn about our culture and do internships in our companies often choose to stay. They seek work and contribute to our nation afterwards. Their presence enriches our communities and enhances our global connections, fostering a multicultural environment that benefits all Australians.

Given the high value of international students to our economy and society, it is paramount that we protect them from exploitation. Unfortunately, international students are often targeted by unscrupulous education agents and fraudulent institutions who sell education as a way to get work rights in Australia or who do not deliver on the programs they promised. These bad actors tarnish our reputation and undermine the integrity of our education system. Through the work of the National Union of Students, the Council of International Students Australia and other advocates, we know about these issues, and to address them we are now introducing the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Quality and Integrity) Bill 2024.

This bill is a significant step in ensuring the continued excellence and integrity of Australia's international education sector. The Education Services for Overseas Students Act—or ESOS—first introduced in 2000, has already opened the doors for more than four million students to study at our higher education institutions. It provides the regulatory framework for the sector, outlining the responsibilities of institutions and agents, ensuring that Australian education maintains its world-class reputation. We are now strengthening the government's power under this act to ensure students are not exploited.

Education agents, often operating overseas, are tasked with promoting Australian education and assisting students in applying for our programs. However, with minimal oversight and a commission-based payment model, these agents are often rife with abuse. To tackle these issues we are implementing several new measures to prevent collusion between universities and education agents. Both these entities profit from enrolling more students, creating a potential conflict of interest that can lead to dishonest practices. We are introducing new registration requirements for education agents to ensure only those with a proven commitment to ethical practices can operate. This includes strengthening the 'fit and proper' requirement, increasing scrutiny of cross-ownership between education agents and providers to prevent deceitful behaviours.

Last year we closed the concurrent enrolment loophole which allowed agents and providers to shift international students to cheaper, less rigorous courses within six months of their arrival. This was in response to the rise of ghost colleges where students would shift enrolment to keep work rights and not have any intention of studying. In this bill, we are prohibiting agents accepting commissions for transferring students between institutions once they are in Australia. This practice often leads to students being shifted from their original courses to cheaper, less-rigorous courses, purely for financial gain. These ghost colleges, often hidden within offices in the CBD, claim to offer education to thousands of international students. However, investigators revealed that many of these classrooms remained empty, with students nowhere to be found. These colleges exist to exploit loopholes to profit from students who are mainly seeking work opportunities, rather than genuine education. By banning commissions we are removing one of the incentives for agents to transfer students to these colleges.

Transparency and accountability are crucial to maintaining the high standards of our education system. By fostering an environment where information is openly shared and accessible, we can uphold the integrity that makes Australian education globally respected. The bill requires providers—on request—to report education agent commissions. This measure aims to eliminate any hidden incentives that might encourage dodgy behaviour, thereby protecting students from being exploited by agents who prioritise profit over education. Furthermore, this bill empowers regulators to share performance data about education agents with providers. This provision is pivotal in creating a system where education providers can access comprehensive data about the agents they are working with. By having detailed insight into the performance and practices of education agents, providers can make better informed decisions about their partnerships. These measures collectively ensure that all stakeholders in the education sector adhere to the highest standards of integrity and quality. By embedding transparency and accountability into the system, we safeguard the interests of students, uphold the reputation of our education providers and reinforce Australia's standing as a leader in international education.

Post COVID, around the world, there has been a rebound in international students. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, 636,000 students chose to study in Australia, and today that number is 740,000, with a 21 per cent increase on March from last year. It also means that over one-quarter of all students at Australian universities are from overseas, with up to 80 per cent in some courses. To ensure the sector grows in a sustainable manner, we are placing limits on international student enrolments. These limits will help manage the growth of the sector, ensuring that it does not expand beyond our capacity to maintain high standards of education and student welfare. The bill grants the Minister for Education new powers to manage enrolments effectively, providing a structured approach to controlling the flow of international students.

Australia's high wages relative to the cost of living have traditionally been a significant drawback for international students. The prospect of earning a competitive salary while enjoying a relatively affordable lifestyle has been a compelling factor in choosing Australia as a study destination. However, the housing crisis is increasingly undermining this attraction. Rising property prices and rental costs, particularly in major cities, have created significant challenges for students in finding affordable and safe accommodation. At the moment, universities have no requirement to consider international students' housing needs. They can enrol them, bring them onshore and take their fees with no duty of care regarding their living conditions. This lack of responsibility has heightened the housing issues faced by these students, leaving many in vulnerable situations.

The current housing affordability crisis has resulted in a distressing reality for some international students who are forced to reside in unsafe and overcrowded accommodations. Desperate to find affordable options, students often find themselves living in substandard conditions with multiple individuals crammed into a single bedroom. This situation not only compromises their safety, privacy and overall wellbeing but also hampers their ability to focus on their studies and enjoy a positive student experience.

In response to these challenges, the minister will be able to set enrolment limits based on a range of factors, including considering Australia's skills needs and the availability of student accommodation. Universities will be able to increase these limits by building more student accommodations. These limits will be implemented following consultations with the sector and will come into effect from 2025. By carefully regulating the number of international students, we can ensure that we do not overwhelm our housing market or educational institutions, thereby protecting the quality of education and the overall student experience.

The bill will also allow the minister to limit or cancel courses enrolling international students that have persistent quality issues or provide limited value to Australia's skills needs. By doing so, we can better allocate our resources to support areas that are crucial to our country's growth and sustainability. This builds on our government's previous work in strengthening the quality and integrity of our higher education system. In October, we boasted the capacity of the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator by establishing an integrity unit to oversee the sector and ensure compliance with high standards. In March, we increased the English-language requirement for international students, ensuring they have the skills needed to succeed.

We also introduced a new genuine student requirement to ensure students' true intention to come to Australia is to study, while recognising that they may want to stay and contribute to our nation after their degree. We also increased the number of no-further-stay conditions to prevent visa overstays. These measures, combined with the new enrolment limits and enhanced transparency provisions, ensure the growth of our international education sector while maintaining Australia's reputation as a global leader in education.

The Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Quality and Integrity) Bill 2024 is a crucial step in safeguarding the integrity and quality of Australia's international education sector. It addresses the challenges poses by dodgy education agents who have exploited students for far too long and ensures that international students receive the high-quality education they expect and deserve. By strengthening oversight, enhancing transparency and ensuring sustainable growth, this bill protects our reputation as a leading destination for international students. It supports the economic and social contributions of international students to our nation while fostering a positive and enriching experience for students from all over the world.

I thank the Minister for Education, Jason Clare, for his work on these reforms. I commend the bill to the House and urge all members to support its passage. Together, we can ensure that Australia remains a top destination for international students.

7:02 pm

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Quality and Integrity) Bill 2024. The bill has two broad objectives. One: it is to improve integrity and reduce fraud in the international student sector. Two: it is to create a legislative basis for enrolment limits for international education providers.

I support the first objective of improving integrity in the international student education system. This sector has seen a rise in bad-faith education institutions in recent years. The bill will ensure that institutions are providing students with the high-quality education Australia is known and reputed for and not just a visa. The bill will crack down on the 'shonks' and crooks by ensuring publication of performance data about education agents, stopping education agents moving students between institutions for significant commissions, creating powers to pause registration of new institutions and requiring providers to teach domestic students for two years before enrolling international students. I support these changes, because I agree with the minister that they uphold our reputation as one of the best countries in the world to study in. That's a reputation we should be proud of.

I am, however, concerned that the second objective of this bill—the proposed enrolment limits—will undermine the very reputation we're seeking to uphold. As an independent member of this place, I review each bill on its merits. Often, it's not an easy task. When assessing new legislation, I ask myself: What is the problem this legislation is attempting to solve? What is the case for change? How can we uphold proper ethical and governance standards? How can we ensure it's delivering for Australians in the regions? How will it affect my constituents in Indi?

After interrogating this bill and meeting with the vice-chancellors and senior leaders of universities in my electorate, I have some serious concerns. I cannot support the bill while enrolment limits remain. The bill as it stands would give the education minister broad-ranging powers to limit the number of international students a university or TAFE can enrol. That's not only at an institution-wide level but right down to the individual course.

I've met with the minister—I'm really grateful for his time and that of his senior staff—to express my concerns, and the minister says that these measures are designed to secure the sustainable growth of the sector. But I have four key issues with the enrolment framework proposed in the bill: it has a very high risk of damaging regional universities, it seems to me like bad public policy, it's risky for our economy and it fails the ethical governance test.

Firstly, regarding the impact on regional universities, in my electorate, Charles Sturt University and La Trobe University are key contributors to the community, employing more than 500 local people and providing courses in areas like nursing and teaching that are vital to communities across north-east Victoria. Regional universities like Charles Sturt and La Trobe University are essential if we're to have any hope of addressing the workforce shortages that exist right across regional, rural and remote Australia. They are essential if we're to get more regional Australians into university and meet the government's target of 80 per cent tertiary education attainment by 2050, and this is a huge challenge in rural, regional and remote Australia.

While the minister has said that this bill will benefit regional universities and TAFEs, he has provided no strong evidence to support this. I'm sceptical because the Universities Accord review, the government's blueprint for the education sector for the next decade, didn't recommend enrolment limits. It said that any regulation, like enrolment limits, will most likely benefit the large, city based universities. Put simply, this is because the evidence shows that, regardless of government policy, the vast majority of international students want to study in Australia's major cities. If they can't study in a major city then most won't come at all. This is a global trend, and one that enrolment limits are unlikely to change. That's why most regional universities also have metropolitan campuses. Charles Sturt's metro campuses brought in $135 million in revenue prior to the pandemic. This revenue is crucial to regional universities, and it doesn't fund flashy new buildings. It funds the core amenities and services that benefit regional students and regional communities.

The Regional Universities Network is clear that the ongoing viability of regional universities is directly linked to international enrolments at their metropolitan campuses, but the regions have witnessed the slowest post-COVID recovery in international student numbers, and this government's stricter visa conditions are making things even tougher. Visa refusal rates are skyrocketing, particularly at smaller and regional universities. Already this year, La Trobe University has seen a $75 million reduction in international student revenue and has foreshadowed job cuts in the coming months. Federation University and the University of Tasmania are also planning for major cuts. Universities Australia doesn't mince its words and says that the sector is staring down the barrel of thousands of job losses, with the ongoing viability of regional universities at stake.

Education experts and universities in my electorate are clear that this bill risks making a bad situation worse. This bill, as it currently stands, risks making a bad situation worse. Professor Andrew Norton says that the government's model 'would cause actual enrolments to fall well below the official maximum number'. Charles Sturt says that the risk of penalties means most universities will operate well below the official cap to avoid going over it and attracting penalties. Put simply, regional universities are the least able to absorb any further reductions in international student revenue. If these job losses and course cuts eventuate, they will have a devastating impact on communities in my electorate and right across regional Australia.

Why is this government pursuing enrolment limits if universities and higher education experts are against it and if, as the evidence suggests, it won't be effective? The answer to this question leads to my second issue with this bill. This bill has been introduced at a time when both the government and the opposition want to reduce migration to ease pressure on the housing market, and the minister has linked this bill with the housing crisis by saying that, if universities build more housing, they will receive a higher enrolment cap. That sounds alright at face value, and, while I support measures that will address the housing crisis, I am concerned that Universities Australia are right when they say that this legislation is a rushed response to political issues the government wants to address before the next election.

According to the International Education Association of Australia, international students are facing a blame game as the only migration market to Australia that can easily be reduced. In only the five years I've been a member of this parliament, I've seen governments of both stripes flip-flop on their treatment of international students, depending on where the political winds are blowing. In 2020, the former government told international students to go home as the pandemic raged. In 2022, they asked them to come back by uncapping work rights to address critical shortages in hospitality, cleaning, retail and the disability and aged-care sector. Then, in 2023, the current government extended the poststudy work rights of international students to help address critical skills shortages and drive economic growth. But now it wants to cut numbers.

Members of this government rightly criticised the former government's policies at the time, describing them—I quote—as 'distorting student choice and corrupting the market', a 'Ponzi scheme' for unscrupulous international education providers. But now this government is putting forward a bill that few in the sector have asked for and is unlikely to be effective. This competition on who can be toughest on international students is a cynical and unfair play from the government, and it is not in Australia's national interest.

That leads to my third issue with this bill: it's bad economics. International education is Australia's fourth-largest export, bringing in $48 billion per year. In Victoria, it's the third-largest export, bringing in $6.9 billion in revenue and supporting more than 40,000 jobs. International students don't just pay student fees; they spend on food and retail services and they drive local economies. They drive more than 50 per cent of international tourism spending in regional Australia. When I go to the Bright Autumn Festival or when I go up to the snowfields in my electorate, I see the families of international students constantly, having a marvellous time visiting regional Australia. Without international students, Australia would likely be in a recession right now. So, while I recognise the importance of a sustainable international education sector and I support measures in this bill that will help stamp out the unscrupulous actors, the economic impacts of the government's proposals are likely to be self-defeating.

At a time when workforce shortages across Australia are on the rise, we can't start turning away students that can fill these gaps. Regional Australia needs more nurses, more aged-care workers, more builders and more engineers. We need to support our homegrown talent, but we also need to bring in the best and brightest from overseas. This bill undermines these objectives. Of course, it's not just about the money. International students are invaluable members of our community, each bringing a little more of the world to Australia. When they head home, as the minister himself says, a bit of Australia rubs off onto them.

My final issue with this bill is that it's poor governance, with a significant level of ministerial power. As drafted, this bill will give the Minister for Education wideranging control over the international education sector right down to the number of students a provider can enrol in a particular course. I am uncomfortable with the wideranging powers the minister would have over our fourth-largest export sector, and so are universities in my electorate. It's a significant intrusion of ministerial power into the business operations of universities and TAFEs and an intrusion I don't think the government has sufficiently explained. We need to bring in legislation that is future proof and minister proof.

I cannot support this bill while enrolment limits remain. But there are amendments I would support that would limit some of the negative consequences I've outlined. I support the member for North Sydney's amendments that would limit ministerial power to set institution-level caps only, removing the power to set course-level caps, which would have been universally rejected by the sector. I'm also concerned that there is no legislative requirement for the minister to consult with the sector when designing enrolment limits. Charles Sturt University says that the bill was introduced with little warning and little consultation. They worry that the government's rushed timelines mean they will be negotiating caps without knowing crucial details. This might result in having to rescind student offers, causing reputational damage to the university and Australia's international standing.

So I would support amendments that strengthen the requirements for the minister to consult with universities and TAFEs and the broader sector before creating enrolment limits. I have no doubt the minister intends to consult with the sector, but legislation needs to be future proof. We need to take the risk out of this legislation. We need to know that a future education minister can't use the powers to drastically change the international education industry overnight. The powers proposed in this bill contain no adequate guard rails and an inadequate explanation of why they are necessary. I would support amendments that inserted a sunset clause to ministerial powers so that proposed powers would lapse or be transferred to the proposed Australian Tertiary Education Commission—free of political influence.

I think this bill can be repaired, but I can't support it until it is. To reiterate: I support the reforms included in this bill that would improve integrity and reduce fraud in the international education sector. I want international students to be protected from unscrupulous actors and supported to achieve their educational ambitions, and I also recognise that the sustainable growth of the sector is important so that Australia can remain an enviable destination for aspiring students across the world. There is a role for government in this crucial sector. But the enrolment limits proposed by this bill are lacking in evidence base. I am not convinced they will make our international sector more sustainable and I am concerned they will hurt regional universities and TAFEs in my electorate. If this bill is passed unamended, the minister for education would have sweeping powers over the international education sector, with little parliamentary oversight. I don't believe the government has made a clear case for why these powers are necessary. I would support amendments that would make a bad bill slightly better, but the fact remains: I won't be supporting this bill while enrolment limits remain.

7:16 pm

Photo of Julian HillJulian Hill (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank my friend the member for Indi for that contribution on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Quality and Integrity) Bill 2024. There are some really good insights about regional unis. I would say, as somebody who ran this sector in Victoria under a Liberal government and then a Labor government, I think you have discounted the need for reform and some of the enrolment limits, and I would be happy to talk with you further should you wish.

This is our fourth-biggest export sector, and it's no trivial thing—it really isn't. It's critical to the economy and it's also critical to our universities, TAFES and many private businesses—most of them good, some of them bad. It's critical to young people's lives—people who choose to come in their formative years, generally, and study in Australia, many of whom stay on and build a life here. We should celebrate and welcome it when young people do choose Australia—it's a hypercompetitive global market, particularly at the upper end for talent. Students have many choices about where they go.

Most students are great. And I agree with the previous speaker that, too often, international students have been demonised. It should be a bipartisan thing. At the moment we seem to have descended with the Leader of the Opposition down the rabbit hole—no number is too low and no amount of damage to our fourth-biggest export sector is enough. We saw under the former government that the lobsters got their own plans to fly them around the world but the students were told to go home. It was a disgrace.

But for all the good, the soft power, the economic value, the internationalisation of our campuses, the student experience and curriculum, the skills and talent pipeline, and the broader contributions, there are also many negatives: the misuse of the student visa system and the completely unacceptable exploitation of students, as former police commissioner Christine Nixon found in her review. The social license is at risk. I take the point about regional universities, but the previous speaker drew a catastrophic picture from stuff that simply isn't in the bill and, clearly, would never be done because it's government policy. It has been the policy of the former government and this government to do what we can to attract more students to regional universities. The notion that regional universities would somehow have draconian course caps put on them is just nonsensical, and all members need to be careful to take with a grain of salt some of the more extreme advocacy points that have been put to us.

The bill seeks a framework for government to manage the sector, and it is a major shift in how this significant market is managed. Currently, to be frank, governments—the previous government, our government and governments that will come afterwards if we don't have reform—have only two blunt tools to manage the sector, and there is very little active policy that shapes the international education sector onshore. The first of the two blunt tools is CRICOS, which is the registration for providers that provide to overseas students. CRICOS sets notional limits by floorspace, teachers, paperwork and stuff, and is completely divorced from the international education policy framework. There's no transparency and no certainty. That's one lever you've got—the registration process for providers that teach. The other lever you've got is visa approvals, both offshore and onshore. The offshore instrument is incredibly blunt and, often, is actually working against government policy to diversify the students onshore, because, frankly, it prioritises students who apply from China because they're very unlikely to overstay their visas. So we've got these two blunt instruments that work against all the policies which we stand up here and preach.

The onshore application pathways are, frankly, misused and should be limited as soon as possible to cut numbers more quickly. I have no ill will towards the 'permanently temporary' visa holders—I've met many of them; they're decent people. But a person can come here to Australia to do a bachelor's degree, gain a post-study work rights visa and not find a skilled migration pathway as their English isn't good enough. They don't have the right skills and the labour market doesn't pick them you up. They might do a master's and another student graduate pathway and then hop around from VET degree to VET degree for 10 years. That's got to be cut off—that really needs to stop. We've said that. It's not straightforward, I understand, from an IT point of view in Home Affairs, but, with policy will, we have to find a way to stop that. It's not fair to those young people, and it creates horrible situations where people have spent most of their adult lives in our country and they'll never have a pathway to permanent residency. That does our society no good, and we need to do better with that. But we've got two blunt instruments.

Andrew Norton, one of the great higher education thinkers, as mentioned by the previous speaker, has painted a binary set of options. I would actually say that both of these are binaries to avoid. No. 1 would be a bureaucratically allocated market with some kind of Soviet-style inefficiency—you don't want public servants allocating institution by institution, every year, course by course. No-one wants that. That's not what's being proposed, despite some of the caricatures we're hearing. The other binary that I think you want to avoid is the cap-and-trade system. We don't want to set up a system that's effectively trading in people, and the minute you put it in you inflate the value of the places—like the taxi licence problem when Uber and other disruptors came in—and you privilege economic factors over all other factors. You basically drive the higher education system onshore to all teaching MBAs because they're the highest profit and lowest cost. Really? I think they're the two binaries you want to avoid.

The aim of policy should be to refine and evolve the current approach of CRICOS allocations linked to visa system planning levels and a policy framework so that our government and future governments can manage the number of students onshore. We hear all the screeching and hysterics from the Leader of the Opposition, who's always angry, always negative and always says no, and who loves to demonise migrants and play the little race card—nudge, nudge, wink, wink and all of that stuff. We've seen it for 20 years in this country, with his performance. People know what he is; they know what he's like. But, despite the current hysterics about international students, we actually need to get a policy framework and a way of governments managing the onshore system, because the truth is there is insatiable demand globally for people, young people usually, to study onshore in Australia that can never be met. And it's about time we stopped trying to manage this through the blunt instruments of visa rejections and the CRICOS system and agreed on an adult way that the minister and future ministers can manage the sector and shape it to maximise the value for our country in every sense. Governments need mechanisms to manage the market; that's my proposition.

I am concerned about some of the language—I'm not talking about the substance, but some of the language—and we need to be careful to get this right. The problem with the political fight and the screeching about students being to blame and how Australia doesn't want more students and the negative signals that are being sent—we hear them in markets now. This is a word-of-mouth market. It's driven by the student experiences of those who are here, those who studied in Australia and all the stuff that ricochets around on social media. The problem if we just screech, 'Hard caps; cap, cap, cap; hard limit; inflexible'—if that's what they're proposing; it's not what this bill means—is that you send a negative market signal globally, which risks deterring the best students, the ones we want to attract who can go anywhere in the world. Canada saw this when they implemented their caps in the wrong way. It's a hypercompetitive market for talent. It's bad for soft-power human capital and research.

It also sets up an immediate and endless political football with the opposition of the day. The number will always sound big and scary and be misrepresented and misunderstood. And it does create, as the previous speaker noted from Andrew Norton's work, a market problem of underutilisation, an allocation problem and a lack of flexibility. So, in doing this, we do need to be able to limit enrolments and manage the shape of the market onshore, but we need to do it in a way which includes sufficient flexibility. I've argued publicly for a range. You could call it a tolerance, but, whatever you want to call it, we actually want minimums as well as maximums. We don't just want to put a single number there, knowing that everyone will float below it. We want a signal that of course we want students, and that we want valuable students. We do want providers to use their allocations, or whatever language you want to use. Once ranges or whatever are established, there should be an annual periodic process to allocate spare capacity and growth, and it should have a use-it-or-lose-it philosophy. We want to provide stability and certainty for providers, and allocate capacity according to the policy frameworks to incentivise the behaviours we want: new housing, as the Treasurer and government are rightly pointing to; market diversification; and study in regional areas and so on.

The critical question which we've never confronted as a country is: what is the shape of the onshore market that we want? That's an elephant in the room that has never been tackled. I think we need a policy framework alongside this, and I think the minister is consulting on a draft framework—well done, Minister—to maximise the overall value for Australia. We would look at things like the economic value, which tilts strongly towards higher education rather than VET. But we'd also look at the skills and talent pipeline. We want young people studying, particularly in vocational areas where they can make a contribution to Australia—if we can't have everyone onshore—and that tilts towards VET. That's because most of the in-demand occupations on the National Skills Shortage List are actually vocational and not higher ed. We want market diversity for soft power—spread the love—to hedge the risk of overreliance on a particular market and to enrich the student experience on campus. We want regional and geographic diversity within Australia and we want to build our research links and capability. All of this may vary by location, but it does put the low-value private VET courses from the institutions that everybody knows are selling work visas, not student visas, that make no contribution to Australia in the gun. That's just a fact.

And we're figuring out what the basis is, what the best way is, to manage future student numbers onshore. I would argue strongly against just making a hard link to net overseas migration to suit the political purposes of the Leader of the Opposition of the day. This one is pretty bad, but it will be a political temptation, as people have said, in the future. It would be a very blunt instrument just to link it to the NOM. It would swing wildly and it would mean that domestic politics and other parts of the migration system would then drive the numbers in our fourth-biggest export sector. That would be economically chaotic and it wouldn't be linked to the management of overall student numbers. No government can control the NOM perfectly from year to year because we can't control how many people leave Australia from year to year. These are just commonsense things, if you put the politics aside. We could link a number range to pre-COVID numbers in around 2019, plus or minus a few per cent. That probably has merit. I'd argue that we really should look at a share of the Australian population back to pre-COVID levels. We're currently floating at about 2.9 per cent of the Australian population being international students. The pre-COVID average was about 2.5. That would be sensible, and it would have the advantage of inbuilt growth, because there was, on average, 1.6 per cent in population growth each year pre COVID. So we need to have that discussion, and we are having that discussion, with the sector.

We need to think how we establish initial ranges by the sector. I would say that has to flow from the policy framework—rebaselining things and, particularly, rebalancing things between higher education and VET. But we have to focus more on where major providers were pre COVID. There have been some blatant market share grabs—particularly, I'd point out, by a couple of the large New South Wales universities. Frankly, they've recruited large numbers of Chinese students and disadvantaged other universities which have been trying to do the right thing and diversify. So there does need to be some rebalancing. And, yes, we need governments to make sure that good private providers have an ongoing place in a managed market. That's so some of the bureaucracy, or the university snobbery that has been talked about by some of the regulators in years past, doesn't just wipe them out. That said, I have little to no sympathy for the bottom end of the private VET market, which has just profiteered post COVID and ballooned in market share.

In my remaining minute, I will just make a remark on the course-level intervention power. Rightly, it has been made clear by the minister upfront that this is seen as a reserve power to be used rarely, and only if needed. I would say it's a stick, if needed, to link to quality and integrity issues—a stick to curb or stop low-value activities in the VET sector. And it's also to be used, perhaps in a positive way at times, to allocate additional fixed places for high-value new courses.

For what it's worth, I think that amendments are needed to the bill. I think they will be dealt with sensibly. They're being thought about by the government, and will be looked at through the Senate inquiry. The submissions to that are robust and good; it's a proper process. I do think personally—this is not government policy—that I'm not seeing the case being made, frankly, for course-level caps in the higher-ed sector. I think the case remains overwhelming for course-level caps power in the VET sector. There's a lot more I could say, but time will expire on me in about 10 seconds. I think this is an important debate, but members need to remember there's a long way to go on this. The government is listening, we're consulting, and people should take those consultation processes seriously.

Debate interrupted.