Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-Registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 26 October 2009, on motion by Senator Wong:

That this bill be now read a second time.

10:33 am

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment Participation, Apprenticeships and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

We are debating the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009 in the wake of yet another collapse of a private training college servicing overseas students. This follows a number of closures and a series of other training college related controversies throughout 2009. Indeed, it is fair to say that, under the Rudd Labor government’s watch, the situation with our private international training colleges has really turned into a very unsatisfactory situation which is seriously impacting on our reputation overseas and on thousands of overseas students who find themselves stranded across Australia in the context of some of these closures.

It is a very unsatisfactory circumstance which, all the way back in August last year, the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said she had a plan to do something about. Two days before she announced her visit to India, where she went to have talks with various organisations and the Indian government, she rushed this legislation into the parliament, only to have it linger here for the last six or seven months. There has been absolutely no progress on this legislation for six or seven months, even though the minister very quickly got this legislation introduced so that she could put out a press release and tell the world how she was going to meet with the Indian government and discuss with them the Rudd government’s ‘recent moves’ to improve the quality of education for overseas students in Australia—very recent indeed. This was to include the re-registration of education providers for overseas students and the review of the act which was undertaken by the Hon. Bruce Baird and the international students roundtable in September.

The closure of a college on Monday this week, according to reports, has resulted in more than 2,300 students across Australia finding themselves stranded. Imagine students from Switzerland, Brazil, Colombia, Italy, Germany and France phoning their parents and friends to tell them what it is like to attend an English language training college in Australia. There is no guarantee, even though you have paid $10,000 and paid for accommodation, even though Australia has a reputation as a serious and reliable country. All of a sudden they find themselves facing eviction from their accommodation and no access to the training they have purchased. We have had this legislation lingering in the parliament since August last year. Clearly, the government did not give this sufficient priority; otherwise, the processes that are to be put in place by this legislation could be well underway by now.

This is an important, albeit long overdue, bill. The coalition does intend to support it with amendments which we believe will improve the bill. In its current form we do not believe it will achieve the objectives that the government says it is trying to achieve with this particular legislation. I note that as a result of the speed with which the bill was introduced, even though it has progressed very slowly since then, there was very minimal consultation by the minister. Considering that re-registration will be carried out by state training authorities, we are somewhat surprised that there was no meaningful consultation with state training authorities to ensure that all of the ducks were properly lined up and that all the i’s were dotted and the t’s crossed. But that is what we have come to expect from this government.

It is important to remind ourselves that we are talking about Australia’s third-largest export industry—$15.5 billion in export revenue—and our largest services industry export. There is clearly much at stake: both the tangible benefits that Australia receives through sharing its educational expertise and the less tangible benefits such as improving its reputation as a quality source of education services. A Senate inquiry canvassed some of the issues that need to be addressed in relation to the quality of providers and to student safety and support networks, as well as to some of the immigration related issues. I commend the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee on the quality of that report.

This bill goes some way towards addressing the concerns I have just raised, but not as comprehensively as we on this side of the chamber would like; hence the amendments that we have previously circulated, which aim to give more substance to the government’s response. This bill focuses on education providers—institutions that are registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students. They will have to be re-registered by 31 December 2010. Those re-registered providers will also be required to list the names of their agents and to ensure that those agents comply with regulations relating to them and their conduct. It is a good start, but we think that we will be coming back into this chamber, having these discussions from time to time as problems like the one we experienced earlier this week play themselves out across Australia. What we need is a more serious and more long term rethink, rather than just another ‘quick, slow fix’. There is, of course, an inherent tension between jurisdictions: between the federal regulation and oversight of migration matters and the state regulation and oversight of institutions of higher learning. Perhaps that is a subject for some rethinking and reform down the line. As often happens, the two branches of government do not necessarily have the same objectives and as a result we have to make do with uneasy compromises and try our best to balance those competing interests. In addition, both the Commonwealth and the states share some responsibilities regarding the quality control, regulation and oversight of those institutions. Until such time as these jurisdictional issues are properly resolved in a more comprehensive and logical manner we have to make do with a piecemeal and ad hoc process of reform.

The coalition will offer two amendments to this bill. Firstly, we will seek to enshrine risk management principles in the legislation, thus pushing the states to commit to a more vigorous auditing regime during the re-registration process. These risk management principles ought to include a focus on the financials of the various education facilities. The process has to look at factors such as the accreditation level of the staff employed, the length of operation of the various providers and so on. Secondly, we note the Greens’ foreshadowed second reading amendment, which we intend to support in part, which sets out the prioritisation with which some of the re-registration process ought to happen. Clearly, there ought to be a prioritisation of the process of re-registering providers. Essentially, re-registration ought to happen with particular regard to where:

                   (i)    the provider has a high proportion of students from a single country;

                  (ii)    the provider offers only a limited number of education programs;

                 (iii)    the provider has had a rapid increase in enrolments in the recent past;

                 (iv)    the provider has previously breached the national code;

                  (v)    there is a history of visa fraud in relation to student visa applications relating to the provider’s education programs ...

We support that. The reality is that some education providers are attracting students not so much for the education outcome but for the migration outcome that their students might seek to achieve. That is not a satisfactory situation and that is something that will need to be addressed moving forward.

Something that we are very concerned about on this side of the chamber, and which I hope the government is going to address in its second reading reply, relates to the Education Services for Overseas Students Assurance Fund. When there is a collapse such as we experienced again earlier this week—the latest in a series of collapses that have happened on the Rudd government’s watch—then the ESOS Assurance Fund that has been established under section 46 of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act should:

... protect the interests of overseas students and intending overseas students of registered providers by ensuring that the students are provided with suitable alternative courses, or have their course money refunded, if the provider cannot provide the courses that the students have paid for.

Now, the ESOS Assurance Fund is a very secretive fund. It is very difficult to get current information in relation to the financial situation of the fund. It is very difficult to ascertain whether the students who have been the victims of this most recent collapse will be able to benefit from the guarantees that are supposed to be provided by this fund, because the most recent publicly available information only goes to 31 December 2008.

In the year to 31 December 2008, the ESOS Assurance Fund made a loss of $1.3 million. The cash and cash equivalents in the fund had reduced from $3.7 million in 2007 to $1.8 million by 31 December 2008. We are now at the beginning of 2010. To date, we have not received any information about where the financials of the ESOS Assurance Fund stood at the end 2009. I would be interested to hear from the minister whether 2009 has been as difficult and as challenging a year from a financial point of view as the previous year. I suspect that it may have been, given some of the closures and other problems that occurred last year. If the fund had another year like 2008, when it lost $1.3 million, we on this side of the chamber suspect that it might just about run dry and, with what has been happening out there in the world of training colleges, this would be a very serious concern. It would certainly be a concern for many of the students who have now been left to wonder ‘Where to from here?’ after the most recent collapse of a private international training college.

The second amendment that the opposition will be pursuing concerns education agents. The amendment focuses on ensuring that all education agents have at least received training and are aware of Australian requirements regarding matters such as attendance, work permits and migration et cetera. This, in turn, means that they should be able to pass on information to potential students. In short, we think that there is a need to professionalise education agents. The overall effect of the amendment is intended to be a bit of crackdown on dodgy agents and shaky institutions whose actions harm overseas students, damage our reputation overseas and make it more difficult for the overwhelming majority of professional and respectable providers to provide education and for agents to carry on their useful work as intermediaries between our education institutions and potential students from overseas.

In summary, we support this legislation. We support what the government is trying to achieve by it. We think that the government has dragged its feet a bit, given what appeared to be a certain degree of urgency back in August. Clearly, the government did not prioritise this legislation appropriately last year and wasted a lot of time in this chamber on a whole series of other matters that were never going to go anywhere. This was something that needed to be addressed. We do not think that the legislation in its current form is quite going to achieve what the government intends it to achieve. We do hope that the government will take a longer term look, once the Baird review has reported on some of the reforms that might need to be pursued. In the meantime, there is a very particular concern on our side of the parliament about the current financial situation of the ESOS Assurance Fund, which we would like the government to address during the debate today. With those few words, I conclude the contribution on behalf of the opposition.

10:48 am

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak to the first legislative acknowledgment that our proud international education reputation is at the crossroads, with revelations of mismanagement, misleading conduct and dodgy agents providing false advice and guarantees to prospective students. Over the last 12 to 18 months, we have seen numerous colleges close across the country and unscrupulous education agents operating purely for profit purposes, taking advantage of young people who simply want to get an education and build their careers and who often want to go back to their homelands and invest in their own communities. We have also seen a lack of transparency at both government and institutional levels. All of these issues have heightened the need for greater monitoring and support of the way in which our entire international student sector and educational institutions interact with government at state and federal levels and, of course, across the different departments—the education department and the immigration department—so as to ensure that we have proper monitoring of all of these issues.

While I was going leave it to the end, I think perhaps this is an appropriate place to flag the idea that, given that the international education sector is Australia’s third largest export, it is time that the full attention of a parliamentary secretary is given to this sector. I urge the government to seriously consider it.

As recently as this week, we have seen the closure of another college. With colleges collapsing right around the country, affecting more than 2,000 students, including those in my home state of South Australia, it is clear that the government must step up and toughen business regulations and corporate law so that it is not so easy for providers to simply close the doors when it suits them. Providers should have to acknowledge the effect of such closures on the lives of students who are now sitting in limbo. Many of these students have paid thousands and thousands of dollars in fees. Many of them have spent even more money getting to Australia in order to take this educational opportunity. We need to acknowledge that these students not only need to be supported and helped through this process but should be given some more guarantees that, when they choose Australia as the place to come to for study, they will also be looked after.

The Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009 seeks to amend the Education Services Overseas Students Act 2000. Things have changed a lot since the year 2000. We know that the education sector has boomed in terms of the international student market. We know that the numbers in the last financial year rose by 19.6 per cent—that is a significant growth in one financial year. It is time that we seriously reconsider how we manage, regulate and protect this important sector, let alone the young people who rely on it. We know that we need to do more to promote students’ services in these institutions. There are stories of colleges that have not been particularly upfront with students about their engagement in their education, how they are able to put that education into practice, what types of services they should expect to be provided to support them through their educational career and what to expect and where to go to when a college closes. There are lots of stories of students who were not be able to access the right information and who did not have access to the services they needed to get the best value for the thousands of dollars they were spending here, in Australia.

We should be proud that we have had a reputation as an outstanding international education system here in Australia and we need to be doing more now to protect that reputation, not simply brushing it under the carpet. I am thankful that the government has finally seen the light and decided to do something about tackling this problem by asking colleges to reregister. That is obviously what this bill goes to the heart of, but it does not necessarily deal with all of the concerns and all of the problems that lie within the sector. There is much more work to be done than simply asking colleges to reregister.

The fact that Australia’s international sector has grown by 19.6 per cent in the past financial year highlights the importance of tightening the regulatory frameworks within the ESOS Act to ensure that we are providing the best possible educational experience for students studying here in Australia. We want students to finish their educational experience in Australia and to go and tell the rest of the world what a good opportunity it was, to feel proud about being able to study here in Australia and to tell their friends that Australia is the best place to come and study—that you get a good educational experience and you get a good student experience while you are here. In order for us to do that, we need to make sure we put in the attention and protections that those students deserve.

It is important to note that, while the university sector originally accounted for the initial growth in international students, since 2005 enrolments in the VET sector have grown significantly and within the last 12 months we have seen an increase of 39.3 per cent. That is really significant—almost a 40 per cent increase just in the VET sector. Of course, this is something we now need to be turning our attention to. It is very interesting to see the correlation with the childcare sector, which became privatised and corporatised and expanded without the proper regulatory frameworks, and we saw what happened with the ABC Learning collapse. It is quite similar to what we are seeing happen now in the international education sector, except that we know the stories that are coming out are far more serious, and we need to acknowledge that and do things to fix it.

While this legislation is a welcome commitment by the Rudd government to reforming the international education sector, the Greens do hold concerns that this bill fails to adequately target the problem areas within the sector, with many areas such as student safety and welfare not included in the initial legislative response. I would really like to see a more speedy response from the government on these issues. The major criticism of the current act is the lack of guidance given in the definition of what appropriate support for students should be. The act simply says that they need to provide support; it does not say what that needs to look like. We really need to see more guidance in this area to ensure that providers do understand their obligations and responsibilities.

Australia’s thriving international education sector has come under local and international media scrutiny over the last few months following a series of reports surrounding violent attacks, particularly on Indian students. This follows calls for better assistance and support for international students that have until now really fallen on the deaf ears of successive governments and opposition parties. Since then, an intense spotlight has been placed on our international education sector, with issues such as visa exploitation and discrimination within employment, student safety, questionable information provided by education and immigration agents and the substandard educational services and support provided by some providers who simply have not really understood what their responsibilities should be in ensuring that students get value for their dollar in terms of not just education but also their experience.

According to statistics from the Australian Education International monthly summary of international student enrolment data, as at June 2009 there were 467,407 enrolments of full-fee international students in Australia on student visas, compared to half as many in June 2002. This is a significant growth and that is why we now need to step up our response to ensure that our regulations and our legislation are apt in dealing with these problems.

There are two new registration requirements under this bill. Item 5 of schedule 1 of the bill states that the provider must be able to demonstrate that their principal purpose is providing education and that they have clearly demonstrated their capacity to provide education of a satisfactory standard. Of course, how do we then decide who we monitor first? While this requirement is fair and reasonable, there seems to be no further detail on how these areas will actually be assessed in a practical sense. While the Minister for Education has stated in her second reading speech that breaches of the national code can result in enforcement action under the act, the Greens remain concerned about the capacity to properly monitor and enforce breaches of the act and the national code without fundamental changes to the regulatory framework.

Time after time, international students said during the inquiry run by the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations last year that they felt that the government continued to monitor them more closely than the activities of the education providers. Time and time again, students told stories of being caught because they were forced to work half an hour over the 20-hour work limit while their education provider was not providing the quality of education that they should, yet where was the monitoring and compliance of the international education providers? It is time for us to really consider how we protect our international education sector by not only ensuring that we require a reregistration of all of these providers but also ensuring that we continue to monitor the types of education they are providing and that those who do breach the code of conduct are actually dealt with and that that code of conduct is enforced.

One of the key issues that has been raised by international students and their respective communities is the lack of support provided to students in these educational institutions. Students want to be able to raise issues and question the quality of education and services that they are getting, but they do not know who to go to. There is no real clear avenue of advocacy for them. Given the proposed bill requires that all providers demonstrate their capacity to provide education of a satisfactory standard, the Greens would like to see a commitment through this legislation that this new registration requirement will also require providers to demonstrate that they have a capacity to provide and define adequate student support.

There is no use in simply re-registering education providers if you do not then allow students that support. We need to ensure that if the education is not up to standard then those students have an avenue for advocacy. Obviously we recognise that the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 that is currently waiting to come back before the parliament would provide some of this support to students. But we are concerned that in the VET dominated sector this issue is perhaps not looked after. We need to see government come up with an alternative where student support and advocacy are fundamental requirements and are provided to international students at all institutions, not just to those studying at traditional universities.

I have said that the re-registration of all institutions is going to be a mammoth task. We believe that the bill could be better targeted to ensure that we are able to prioritise the high-risk areas first and foremost so that we can avoid further collapses such as we have seen this week. Given that the main intention behind the requirement for all education providers to re-register by December 2010 is to restore confidence in the quality of education services for all international students, the Greens are concerned that this provision is not appropriately targeted. While the actual process for re-registration is yet to be formalised, we believe that a more targeted approach that would prioritise high-risk areas of the sector is more appropriate and practical when dealing with the current turmoil in Australia’s international education sector. We need to target and be more strategic in how we do this over the next 10 to 12 months. We cannot allow colleges to collapse, leaving students on the street, simply because we have not got to them yet. We need a practical response. That means indicating which of these areas is high risk.

In discussing re-registration requirements, the Greens also believe that, while it is beyond the scope of this particular piece of legislation, an independent education commission or an ombudsman should be established to define the minimum standards for student support, information and advice provision. This should be available to students on a national level so that they know who to go to. If they have concerns and are questioning the quality of service at an institution, they will have somebody they can go to. It is simply not good enough for the education department to provide a 1800 number; we need somebody to give this the full attention it deserves.

An important requirement contained within this bill is the stipulation that a registered provider must  maintain a list of persons, whether within or outside Australia, who represent or act on behalf of a provider in dealing with overseas students or intending overseas students. While the Greens are indeed supportive of this measure—and we think that registration is an important factor for all agents—we believe it should go further and ensure that all education agents, whether operating onshore or offshore, are properly registered. Quality benchmarks should be set at a national level to spell out what is considered adequate information or advice. There is a clear need for sufficient monitoring of education agents operating on behalf of institutions right throughout Australia. As such, we would like to see the government commit to introducing rigid education agent and provider protocols. These need to be developed to pave the way for a more transparent system of monitoring the activities of agents and providers into the future and to avoid the occurrence of the dodgy behaviour that we have heard reports of over the last few months. We need to ensure that students do not get caught out simply because they do not know any better.

The Greens also believe that it is paramount that, where a provider has failed to fulfil its education commitment, students are able to enrol in an equivalent course as soon as possible and that they do not incur any additional costs to do so—given that they have often already paid thousands of dollars in course fees. While we recognise that item 6 of the bill allows for regulations to prescribe the criteria for considering whether a course is a suitable alternative for a student where a provider can no longer offer a particular course, we also believe that in legislating for this requirement there must be a requirement to provide students with access to their full and accurate academic transcript. Of course, where there is not the ability for a student to be enrolled in a similar course then we need to consider refunding the course fees and other costs associated with attending the institution that has collapsed.

We are concerned that the current investment in the ESOS Assurance Fund is not significant enough. We are concerned that, as was raised by the opposition, those funds are currently depleted. We cannot get to the bottom of exactly how much money is in there, but we know that students are not able to get access to all the refunds that they deserve. We have seen that in the Sterling College example and other cases. I would hate to think that the 2,000 students who are out on the streets today because of the collapse of GEOS over the last few days might be left not only without another course to go to but without the refund of their fees. We need to look at this matter urgently.

It is clear that the students themselves are the worst affected by this worrying flux in the sector, experiencing distress due to the uncertainty around their educational, financial and immigration status. They are put in limbo when these collapses happen. The students that I have spoken to are not just concerned that they cannot get into another course; they do not know whether they are going to be accepted for prior learning in another course. They do not know how much money they will get back from their other associated costs. They are also unsure of their visa status now that they are not enrolled. These are the concerns and anxieties of international students who are caught when a college collapses. We need to do more to ensure that we give some guarantees to these young people. One of the best ambassadors that Australia can have when promoting our international education program is the satisfied international student who goes home and tells their friends that Australia is the place to come to study, not just for the quality of the education but for the overall experience. That is what we need to be putting our energy into and giving our attention to.

I think it is time that the government seriously consider implementing a parliamentary secretary role for the international education sector. This is Australia’s third largest export. It deserves the full attention of government. It is not good enough to have knee-jerk reactions when things go awry. We need to be doing more to prevent these crises happening in the future. We need to do more to protect our international education sector, not just for the reputation of international students here in Australia but also for the reputation of domestic students when they travel abroad.

11:07 am

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009. This bill makes adjustments to the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 and introduces processes that will increase the accountability of international education providers under the National Code of Practice for Registration Authorities and Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students, which was introduced in 2007.

I welcome this bill as part of our national effort at both the federal and state levels to ensure the continued success and prosperity of our education export industry. People are sometimes surprised to learn that education is one of Australia’s largest export industries, even when that education is being conducted right here in Australia. We tend to think of an export industry as one that sends something overseas, whether it is wool, coal or opera singers. But the economic effect is the same if people come here from overseas and buy things from us. Tourism in that sense is an export industry but so too is education. Every student who comes here from overseas and spends money on goods and services is contributing to the Australian economy.

This industry is the third biggest for Australia but it is a particularly important industry for my state of Victoria. Education is in fact Victoria’s biggest export industry, earning the state almost $5 billion last year. Victoria is lucky to have some of Australia’s finest universities, including the University of Melbourne, Monash University and RMIT, as well as many fine colleges and secondary schools that welcome and have long welcomed international students into their ranks.

We are also lucky that Melbourne is one of our most livable cities, one of our most multicultural cities and a city that has prided itself on offering a warm welcome to overseas students. Surveys of international students consistently show that the majority are very satisfied with their courses and their living experience in Victoria and that they would recommend Victoria to their friends. Victoria has a reputation as one of the world’s most desirable places to get an education. It is extremely important that we all work to preserve that hard-won reputation.

There are currently more than 160,000 international students studying in Victoria. That is nearly 30 per cent of all the international students in Australia, meaning that Victoria is getting more than its proportional share of the education business. Victoria’s international education industry has almost doubled in the last few years, defying the global downturn. International students in Victoria come from over 100 countries, but the largest markets for our educational services are India, China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Indonesia. There are almost 50,000 Indian students enrolled to study in Victoria, and that is the largest single national component.

Over the past year, two issues have arisen as possible threats to the success of our education industry. The first is the recent spate of violent attacks on Indian students in Melbourne, a subject that I will return to shortly. The second is the increasing problem of students and their families being defrauded by dishonest education providers or let down by incompetent providers. That problem is the subject of this bill.

Like any industry which is both relatively new and growing very rapidly, the education export industry has, unfortunately, attracted a number of operators who are dishonest or incompetent or even both. There have been a number of unfortunate incidents in which students and their families have been defrauded, in which colleges have suddenly closed and students have been left stranded and with no way of either getting their money back or completing their courses. These incidents are publicised in the students’ home countries and that has the further effect of damaging our reputation as a country, damaging the reputation of our education industry and helping our competitors, such as the US, Canada and New Zealand.

This government is determined to put in place a regime that minimises this risk to the success of our education export industry. Last year the government announced that the Hon. Bruce Baird, the former Liberal member for Cook and, before that, a New South Wales state minister, will head a review of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act. In the meantime, this bill will require the re-registration of all institutions currently registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students. They will have a year to re-register. Re-registration of all providers will serve to restore confidence in the quality of the Australian international education sector and to strengthen the existing registration process by reducing the number of high-risk operators currently in or seeking entry to the sector. To weed out such high-risk operators, two new registration criteria are introduced in this bill. First, the provider must have the principal purpose of providing education and, second, the provider must have a demonstrated capacity to provide education that is to a satisfactory standard.

The bill also provides processes that will increase the accountability of international education providers under the National Code of Practice for Registration Authorities and Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students. The bill also makes international education providers’ use of education agents more transparent and more accountable. To become a registered provider of international education services, an operator will need to demonstrate that the services it provides comply with the requirements of the national code. In recommending a provider for registration, the state or territory authorities must also be satisfied that the provider is fit and proper to be registered.

I welcome the provisions of this bill. Safeguarding our export education industry is not just the responsibility of the federal government or of this parliament. The states and territories also have an important role to play. As I have already noted in my remarks, Victoria has a particularly high stake in protecting the reputation of this industry, since it is the largest provider. So I am pleased to see that the Brumby government has already taken firm steps to crack down on bogus and incompetent operators in this field. In 2008 the Brumby government set up a task force to examine these problems. The task force was led by the Parliamentary Secretary for Industry and Trade, the Hon. Marsha Thomson, and was responsible to the Minister for Skills and Workplace Participation, the Hon. Jacinta Allan. The task force included prominent Victorians such as George Lekakis, Chairman of the Victorian Multicultural Commission; Julie Moss, National Chair of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training; and Wesa Chau, from the Australian Federation of International Students.

The task force reported to the Victorian minister in March last year that there was a perception among some full fee paying international students in Victoria that they were being exploited on the one hand and indeed neglected on the other. Some felt they were being treated as cash cows by the industry and some had complaints about service providers and the quality of education they were being offered by some of these providers. These complaints rarely related to Victoria’s major universities or to our many well-established colleges or schools but related mainly to smaller private providers, mainly business and language colleges.

As a result of the task force’s work, Premier John Brumby was able to announce in September a $14 million plan to address the concerns expressed by students and others in the international education industry and to secure that industry’s long-term future. This plan called Thinking Global: Victoria’s Action Plan for International Education is designed to ensure that Victoria will continue to build on its status as a leading destination of choice for international students. The plan includes a $9.8 million commitment for a new International Education Long Term Growth package designed to drive sustainable growth in the sector, $2.7 million for the International Students Connections package to build on existing support services and information provision to international students in Victoria and $1.4 million for the Quality in International Education package, which is designed to ensure that Victoria’s reputation as a world-class study destination is maintained. This last provision is directly relevant to the topic of this bill since it provides for rapid audits of education and training providers who are suspected of engaging in unsound practices.

The Victorian minister, Jacinta Allan, said in September last year that Victoria was determined to maintain the high quality of Victoria’s providers and to improve the services offered to international students. The minister made it clear that rapid audits of suspect providers would be conducted in tandem with Commonwealth government agencies and authorities. The Victorian minister also said that Victoria would build on existing support services and improve information for students about living in Melbourne and would work with the industry to introduce a new student buddy system to support new arrivals in their early months settling into a new country and a new environment.

Victoria is also responding to the other major area of concern in recent times. Of course, I speak of the spate of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne most particularly. All violent attacks on innocent people, whatever the motive, must be and are condemned. The police and state government must do everything they can to stop them. But it is difficult to find out exactly how many of these attacks there have been in Victoria or to determine whether they have been specifically targeted at Indian students. It is possible that some or all of these attacks have been racially motivated, but it is also possible that they are simply a subset of violent attacks on people travelling alone at night on public transport.

For example, in a typical incident in May of last year, four teenagers attacked, robbed and bashed an Indian student who was going home on a Werribee train after working a late shift at KFC. The teenagers from Hoppers Crossing and Tarneit in the western suburbs of Melbourne later faced the children’s court charged with offences including intentionally causing injury, recklessly causing injury and robbery. Was this attack motivated by racism or was it robbery of a person travelling alone on a train at night? It is, unfortunately, impossible for us to know. But the fact is these attacks have happened and they have received a great deal of adverse publicity not only here in Australia but also profoundly in the Indian media. The perception that Melbourne is no longer a safe place for Indian students to come to and study is now widespread in India and is damaging our education industry directly. The Victorian government and the Victoria Police have been working with the Indian student community in Melbourne to stamp out these incidents and to reinforce the fact that, for most students, most of the time, Melbourne is one of the safest places in the world to live, work and study. Victoria has moved to bring in stiffer sentences for attacks that are found to be racially motivated. In September last year Premier Brumby visited India to reinforce this message. Speaking at a college in New Delhi, the Premier said:

... we are doing everything in our power to ensure the actions of a very small and ignorant minority do not undermine our relationship ... and the reputation Melbourne has as one of the safest cities anywhere in the world ...

Speaking about the new sentencing laws, the Premier said:

This is designed to send a message to the community ... that if an assault has occurred because you hate someone because of their colour, their skin, religious belief or language, then that is an additional factor, which will earn you a tougher penalty when it comes to sentencing ...

His visit and his comments were featured on Indian television news bulletins. India is a country with which I have close family connections. In fact, I was there only a few weeks ago and it was very apparent to me that sections of the Indian media are playing up the threat to Indian students in Australia in an irresponsible way. It is fair to say that the manic behaviour of the media does not exist alone in Australia but is a trait shared worldwide. The Indian media were certainly playing up the fact that Indian students were at risk in Australia. That media attention did not occur in a sober or in a factual context, but it is a fact that in the subcontinent of India the message has been spread far and wide by the Indian newspapers and television that there has been a spate of racist attacks in Australia.

We must take on the task not only of dealing with those allegations and dealing with racism if and where it exists but also of making sure the record is accurate. I note that today a news report in AAP reveals that the Victoria Police have made significant progress in at least one of the cases that was particularly high profile. This news report says:

An Indian man who said he was set alight by assailants near his Melbourne home last month accidentally burned himself while torching his car for an insurance claim, police allege.

Jaspreet Singh, 29, of Grice Crescent, Essendon, in the city's north, faced an out-of-sessions hearing early this morning before a bail justice at St Kilda Road police complex charged with making a false report to police and criminal damage with a view to gaining a financial advantage.

The case gained international headlines among a series of attacks by white Australians on Indian nationals in Melbourne.

I leave that report there. I simply make the point that, amidst the hysteria and amidst the allegations, there are cases where these unfortunate incidents are demonstrably not racist attacks. Nevertheless, that does not change the fact that we must move to protect Melbourne’s and Australia’s reputations as destinations for overseas students and, while dealing with those allegations of racist attacks with the utmost seriousness, also keep an eye on reality and the facts on the ground.

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I call Senator Macdonald, I am going to call Senator Hanson-Young again to move her amendment.

11:22 am

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move the Greens’ second reading amendment, which I forgot to do when I spoke earlier:

At the end of the motion, add:

                 but the Senate is of the opinion that the Government should:

             (a)    prioritise the re-registration of providers by starting with those providers considered to have a high risk profile having regard to one or more of the following factors:

                   (i)    the provider has a high proportion of students from a single country;

                  (ii)    the provider offers only a limited number of education programs;

                 (iii)    the provider has had a rapid increase in enrolments in the recent past;

                 (iv)    the provider has previously breached the national code;

                  (v)    there is a history of visa fraud in relation to student visa applications relating to the provider’s education programs;

                      followed by all remaining institutions; and

             (b)    establish an independent Education Commission to foster best practice in:

                   (i)    visa application processes;

                  (ii)    quality benchmarking of education programs; and

                 (iii)    monitoring of providers and their compliance with the national code.

I also seek leave to table a document from Minister Gillard in relation to our amendments for the committee stage that were circulated and let the chamber know I will not be moving those amendments as a result of the arrangements.

Leave granted.

11:23 am

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

The Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009 before the Senate chamber today highlights yet another failure of the Rudd federal Labor government. I want to speak at some length about that failure. However, before doing that, I want to comment on the remarks made by the previous speaker, Senator Feeney, which again highlighted the failures of Labor governments throughout Australia. Senator Feeney quite clearly said, and I agree with him, that our streets in Australia are not safe. This has all happened on the watch of state Labor governments right around our country. I hear Labor politicians saying: ‘There’s nothing you can do about it. We just get our premiers up to smile at the TV cameras and say things.’

I have just returned from a week in Singapore as part of the Australian delegation to the Asia Pacific Parliamentary Forum, and Singapore, a nation of almost five million people, covering an area of about 40 kilometres by 20 kilometres, has no crime. It is a multiracial society of Chinese, Malays, Indians, Europeans and others, and crime in Singapore is non-existent. Why? Because Singapore governments have been tough on crime. Anyone can walk the streets of Singapore late at night, as I did with my wife, travel on public transport, including the underground, late at night without any fear of crime. Could you do that in Melbourne? Senator Feeney has assured us that you would be mad to even attempt it. Why? Because Labor governments are simply soft on crime. We know they are soft on border protection. We have enormous numbers of illegal immigrants coming into Australia every day, such as in last night’s incident, where a record number of people actually sailed into the bay of Christmas Island before the Australian government was even aware they were around.

In fact, while I was in Singapore, in the course of the parliamentary forum I was attending I raised the question: what is Singapore’s view on illegal immigrants? The answer given to me was slightly in jest, but there was some merit in it. I was told Singapore have a very humane response to boat people: they give them food, they give them water, they give them fuel and they give them a great big map with a big X marked on Australia! That is how Australia’s border protection regime is seen overseas. It is a joke. Since Mr Rudd has been in power, it is clear that Australia has gone soft on border protection. Senator Feeney’s contribution to this debate again showed that Labor state governments cannot make our cities safe.

I also noted that in Senator Feeney’s contribution he was saying that this bill will allow for rapid audits of education providers and therefore will weed out the dodgy operators. Now, why would anyone from the Labor Party be talking about rapid audits and urgency? This bill was introduced into the parliament on 19 August 2009, which just happened to be two days before Ms Gillard, the Deputy Prime Minister, made a highly publicised visit to India to go and tell the Indian government that Australia was doing something about the safety of Indian nationals in Australia and about the provision of quality education services in Australia. Two days before Ms Gillard went on her highly publicised, politically charged visit to India, she introduced this legislation into the federal parliament.

Let us see how good my arithmetic is: 19 August is, what, 5½ months ago? For 5½ months the Labor government have dillydallied with this legislation that might have had some impact on those dodgy education providers. But what did the Labor government do in this parliament? They sat on their hands. Mr Rudd was more interested in travelling the world, as he regularly does, building up his world profile so that he can become Secretary-General of the United Nations when he is thrown out of office in this country. He spends all of his time worrying about his image abroad, without paying very much more than lip service to the safety of international students who come to Australia and the safety of the money that they pay to education service providers in Australia. Is Mr Rudd worried about those international students coming to Australia or is he more worried about his international jaunts on the world stage?

Instead of dealing with this legislation we had the farce of the Labor government trying to push through before Copenhagen that stupid, useless and destructive piece of Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation. Everybody knew that the world would not be following Australia’s lead at Copenhagen. In fact, everybody of sense in Australia knew that nothing Australia did would have any impact on what happened in Copenhagen. In spite of the assurances of the failed climate change minister, Penny Wong, and Mr Rudd, we knew it would have no impact on what anybody else did. We also knew that, if that legislation had been passed before Christmas, Australia would have been out in the front exporting the jobs of Australian workers and unionists overseas.

What did we do in this country? We spent months dealing with that useless piece of legislation instead of dealing with this piece of legislation, which is good legislation and should in fact be passed. It should have been passed back in August when it was introduced. If it had been passed back in August when it was introduced then some of the problems we are seeing today may not have occurred.

I read with great distress that in Cairns in Far North Queensland, which is the area I come from, 150 students who were enrolled at the GEOS Cairns English language school have lost their money and are without an English language school provider. The several staff who worked at that school in Cairns now do not have a job. So there will be 150 fewer mouths to feed and fewer beds to provide in the Cairns region.

Because of the Labor government, the Cairns region is at the present time doing it very tough economically. We had a huge increase in the passenger movement charges by the Rudd government in the last budget, which has certainly not encouraged international tourism to Cairns. We had a bungled advertising campaign for Australian tourism, which has not assisted Cairns at all. We had a change in the workplace relations laws which reduces the flexibility for employers to employ people in the Cairns region in the tourist industry, which requires absolute flexibility. Under Mr Rudd’s regime that has all gone.

We have the fiasco in the Cairns shipbuilding industry, which has been around for 50 or 60 years. On the eve of signing a contract to build Australian warships the Labor government in Queensland, with the acquiescence of the federal Labor government, had that contract pulled from under their feet, resulting in the loss of some 300 skilled trade jobs and other jobs in the Cairns shipbuilding industry. A shipbuilding industry that has built many of Australia’s warships over the last 30 or 40 years is now defunct because of the actions of the Rudd Labor government and the Queensland Bligh Labor government. It is an absolute disgrace.

On top of this we now have this English language school in Cairns folding up shop. This is the very last time you need this. One thing you do need in Cairns is an English language school, because a lot of international tourists come in and we need multilingual people working in the tourist industry. This will be a real blow to Cairns.

Had this legislation been dealt with in August last year, like it should have been, then perhaps this catastrophe could have been avoided. But no, Mr Rudd wanted to wander around the world and spend weeks and weeks debating the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, which everybody knows is a failure and will never happen in this country or in any other of the larger emitting countries. We wasted all of our time on that and this important legislation was left languishing on the table. It should have been debated back then and it should have been dealt with at that time. Then we may not have had these problems we are now experiencing.

I will return to the specific parts of the bill later, but while I am on this subject I want to make the comparison of some of these private tuition schools. Many of them are very good I have to say. I certainly hope that the collapse and the problems that some of them are having, the inaction of the Rudd government in getting this bill through and the paucity of the enthusiasm of state Labor governments to deal with crime, do not impact on some of the magnificent educational institutions we do have in Australia at the present time.

I particularly want to mention James Cook University, which is renowned worldwide for its marine science courses and is getting an increasingly good reputation as a trainer of would-be doctors for Australia and, indeed, the world. I am told that the Queensland health department has said that James Cook University medical students were the best prepared clinically trained students in Queensland and perhaps in Australia. That is because the James Cook medical school training is a six-year, not a five-year, program and has longer placement programs, which start in the first year. It has compulsory rotations and students work in areas of workplace shortages at some stage in their training. The additional year of training gives students the opportunity to sort out weaknesses. James Cook University is fast getting the reputation of being the pre-eminent university in the tropical world. Of course we know that the world in the tropics, between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer, covers more than a third of the globe and a lot of people. James Cook University, with its emphasis on tropical medicine and Indigenous health, is fast gaining a reputation that is being noticed in Asia and by international students everywhere.

While I am talking about James Cook University and medicine and as I was talking a little earlier about Singapore, can I say that whilst I was in Singapore recently at the Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Forum I took a little time out to go and have a look at James Cook University’s campus there. It is a fabulous university in Singapore, training mainly foreign students—that is, foreign to Singapore—at that campus, but dealing in business courses such as the Master of Business Administration and also, interestingly, in psychology courses, which are being increasingly noticed around the Asia-Pacific region. James Cook University at Singapore is a very well run university. It is a credit to Australian university administration and teaching and it stands in stark contrast to some of the problems that we are seeing with these other providers which are highlighted by the bill currently before the chamber.

I understand from Senator Cormann, who has responsibility for this bill for the opposition, that we will be supporting it and we would wish it a speedy passage. I hesitate to use the words ‘speedy passage’ because it is now six months overdue. Had Ms Gillard had any semblance of ability and competence as a minister, we would have been dealing with this far before today. Had we dealt with it back in August, instead of worrying about Ms Gillard making those visits to India and Mr Rudd walking the world stage, as he likes to think he does—had we had them concentrating on what they are paid to do, and that is to legislate and administer effectively in the education area—then perhaps some of the problems that we are currently experiencing might not have existed. But as Senator Cormann has so eloquently said, and for all of the reasons he mentioned, I will be supporting the bill and urge the Senate accordingly.

11:41 am

Photo of Dana WortleyDana Wortley (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009 and, unlike the previous speaker, Senator Macdonald, I intend to address the substance of the bill, because it is a very important one. This bill will enhance Australia’s ability to deliver on quality education services to overseas students—the students who contribute to our multicultural society while gaining skills and knowledge here; the hundreds and thousands of students from around the globe who choose Australia as their study base each year, enhancing our social fabric. The Rudd Labor government’s commitment to action on education—primary, secondary and tertiary—is, in my view, unparalleled in recent history. In delivering on the commitment so thoroughly endorsed by the electorate two years ago, the Rudd government is returning integrity and confidence to the education sector—confidence that, particularly in the tertiary arena, was so degraded by our predecessors, who neglected this vital component of our national life and, indeed, of our economic and social future.

An OECD report on higher education released only one month before the last election found that, while Australia’s public spending on higher education remained well below the levels of other developed countries, we had the highest proportion of international students of all developed countries. Of the students on campus at that time, 17.3 per cent came from overseas and almost all of these students paid, and continue to pay, full fees. Australian universities now depend significantly on the international student dollar. We welcome these students, including in my home state of South Australia. South Australian institutions including TAFE, UniSA, Flinders University and the University of Adelaide all have international students attending. Last year in South Australia we welcomed a record enrolment of more than 33,500 international students from more than 130 countries across our educational sectors—higher education, vocational education, high schools, English-language studies and foundation courses.

Economic statistics show the education of overseas students is an export industry. It is now our third-largest export. Overall, it brings more than $15 billion into our national economy. BankSA’s economic bulletin, Trends, which is compiled in conjunction with Access Economics, addressed this very matter in its November 2009 issue. It discussed the impact of international students specifically on the local economy, stating that, in 2000, international students represented 13 per cent of the higher education student population in South Australia. By 2007 that share had risen to more than 28 per cent. International students, and visits from their friends and families, contribute $680 million a year to our economy. International student activity contributes more than 6,000 full-time equivalent workers to the state’s employment base. Education related exports accounted for 38.7 per cent of all service exports by 2007-08. In both 2007 and 2008 there was strong growth in enrolments in the vocational education and training sector and in the English language intensive courses for the overseas student sector.

Clearly, it is in our economic interest to ensure that the system is appropriately managed and regulated. However, the provision of education services is not only a financial exercise. It is incumbent upon us, as a government and in partnership with providers, to ensure the provision of a high-quality experience and a safe environment for those who entrust us with their hopes, their professional aspirations and their family’s hard earned dollars. It is the case that the sector has grown so rapidly across Australia in recent years that the necessary checks and balances have not, in some instances, been appropriately applied. This means that in a minority of cases unscrupulous individuals and organisations have been able to take advantage of students for personal gain. These operators risk the future of the students they attract to these less-than-reputable services and institutions. This is, of course, unacceptable.

The entire legislative framework of our education services for overseas students is under review. The review of the ESOS legislative framework, led by the former member for Cook the honourable Bruce Baird, is examining the adequacy of the ESOS framework in four key areas: (1) supporting the interests of students, (2) delivering quality as a cornerstone of Australian education, (3) effectively regulating and (4) sustaining the international education sector, with the aim to ensure we continue to offer world-class international education in a changing environment. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Mr Baird said:

… the review was critical for securing the long-term credibility of Australian education in the international marketplace.

The legislation as it stands aims to protect the interests of overseas students by way of a regulatory regime, minimum standards, tuition, financial assurance and the like. It also improves our migration laws by ensuring that providers collect and furnish information pertaining to student visas.

The bill clarifies and/or adjusts certain provisions for greater certainty. It rectifies other provisions now identified as having the potential for inequitable or unreasonable consequences. It introduces protocols and procedures that will improve accountability and put in place disincentives for the use of education agencies that are less than reliable. The bill will achieve these aims by providing for the re-registration of all institutions currently appearing on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students by 31 December 2010; requiring satisfaction by state and territory authorities with regard to the proper purpose and capacity of the provider; requiring the publication by providers of the details of agents representing and promoting the services of those providers; providing for requirements for compliance concerning agents for providers; providing for the discretionary removal of the prohibition on collecting moneys where a course is suspended; ensuring the recognition of conditions imposed on providers at the state or territory level by the Commonwealth; allowing certain exemptions from the provider default refund requirements—for example, where a provider is merely changing its legal entity—and clarifying the present criteria relating to suitable alternative courses.

These measures will augment and improve the protections already established for both the industry and the students, whose interests are so important to us in so many ways. Without doubt, a strong and appropriately resourced education sector is vital to Australia’s future both locally and in terms of our international competitiveness. One cornerstone of our future wellbeing as a community and of our economic security now and in an increasingly uncertain global environment is investment in education. This investment, which underpins our reputation as a quality exporter of education services, must be protected. It cannot be compromised. The Rudd Labor government is determined to act on this country’s needs now and into the future. The measures outlined in the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009 put that determination into achievable form. As the Deputy Prime Minister wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Overseas students have generally thought Australia is a great place to study, and it is vital that reputation be secured …

          …            …            …

We want to make sure those who come here enjoy their time in Australia and get the quality education they seek. When they do, they become phenomenally effective ambassadors for Australia.

Ms Gillard also paraphrased former Monash University Vice-Chancellor Richard Larkins’ statement:

… many senior political, business, professional and public service roles in South-East Asia are filled by graduates of our universities, or by the parents of those studying here.

The advantages of this exchange go beyond the multicultural environment that is so much a hallmark of our country today, to the trade, diplomatic and security ramifications and relationships that are so important for our future. In closing, I recommend the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009 and look forward to its passage through this chamber.

11:53 am

Photo of Sue BoyceSue Boyce (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As Senator Wortley just pointed out, the provision of education to overseas students in Australia is our third largest export industry. It brought in $15.4 billion in 2008 and one would have thought that on that basis the Rudd Labor government, which we are told is keen to protect this industry, could have acted in a somewhat less leisurely fashion than the six months it has taken them to bring this bill, the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009, to the stage of being passed.

The overseas students industry is of major importance to Australia and we need to preserve it, but it is right now at risk, and has been for almost 12 months, of some dubious and unscrupulous practices by a minority in this sector—and I emphasise by a minority in this sector. The majority of private and government and tertiary providers of education to overseas students in Australia are reputable and interested in education. There are others who are more interested in profit. We have seen in the past 12 months a series of high-profile failures in that private college system. GEOS Oceania, which operated English language colleges in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and, in Queensland, Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Cairns, collapsed last week. The administrators, Ernst and Young, have announced that because of the financial position the colleges will not reopen. Total debts owed to students and other creditors are estimated by the administrators to be about $10 million. More than 2,300 students and 390 staff throughout Australia have been left in limbo, or worse.

The consumer provision protections that already existed in this legislation, passed under the Howard government, meant that the students in these colleges should be given places in other institutions. The administrators are now working with the federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and relevant state and territory departments to make these alternative arrangements. But to say that the education of these students has been interrupted is an understatement. It is not just their education and their lives that have been affected but also their families’ gross concerns have been developed by this failure.

Other international schools such as Sterling College and Melbourne International College went under in July. Four schools—Meridian International School, Meridian International Hotel School, International Design School and the International College of Creative Arts, which had 13 campuses—collapsed last November, yet there has been legislation waiting to be passed since August. The Meridian collapse left 3,400 students stranded. Meridian was a Chinese owned company and its owners simply decided to pull out of the Australian market.

A financial audit of the GEOS operation by the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority in December last year raised concerns about their financial viability. But nothing happened in time to save those 2,000-plus students and the 400 or so staff. The Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority is reported to have been in talks with the company back then to have them establish a trust fund to protect students, as well as to reach an agreement to shore up funds for the local operation. Those talks have come to nothing and a collapse has ensued. There was no legislative backup for the work that the Victorian authority was trying to do. The Australian newspaper has reported:

According to industry sources, GEOS’ local woes may relate more to the global operations of the Japanese parent company which was beset by rumours last year that it had been late in paying staff. That has prompted suggestions that the Australian operations may have been used as a cash cow.

Clearly, as the coalition amendments—which Senator Cormann will move for us soon—indicate, there needs to be a risk management approach to providers to ensure that Australian private colleges cannot operate simply as profit centres for overseas organisations. Clearly, there needs to be a scheme whereby sufficient operating funds are retained by the colleges so that students’ dreams are not simply exported, along with their funds, by the overseas owners of some of these colleges.

In fact, the rotten apples in this industry have led to the need for a radical review of the whole business of recruiting foreign students to Australia. The system has been open to rorting. There have been unscrupulous recruitment agents preying on vulnerable potential students and their families who are desperate for a better life for their children and see that as potentially available in Australia at colleges which offer, in the end, little more than the very barest of education—and I do not use that word lightly—no matter what their accreditation currently says and no matter what recruitment agents tell these families and students.

To be honest, there are students, and their families, who openly admit that they are exploiting the current system to achieve their dream of living permanently in Australia. Speaking at the Senate inquiry into the welfare of international students in September last year, a senior industrial officer from the ACTU, Ms Michelle Bissett, succinctly spelt out the existing situation. She said there had been:

... unscrupulous practices by migration agents, by some registered training providers and by some employers. These practices have resulted in exploitation of international students tarnishing our education reputation. Even though they might be migration issues that have come into play, it is having a negative effect, we believe, on our education reputation. The migration pathway that has been opened up for international students has led to a growth in training organisations delivering training, not for the purpose of skill development but for the purposes of migration ...

Recently I was introduced to a young Indian woman student in Brisbane by a senior elder of the local Sikh temple. The young woman’s story is typical of many. She comes from a small rural village in the Punjab. Her parents, who are poor farmers, borrowed heavily so that they could raise the $10,000-plus required for her to pass the International English Language Standard Test and to pay for the first six months tuition fee at a private college in Brisbane, and to buy her ticket to Australia. It was a massive amount of money for this family to raise, but attached to it were their dreams of a better life for their daughter and, hopefully, for themselves. This woman was sent by her parents to a ‘cramming school’, as she described it, run by a recruitment agency in the Punjab, so that she could learn sufficient English to pass the International English Language Standard Test. Yet during our chat she acknowledged that her English was poor and she frequently had to defer to the temple elder for a translation of my comments and questions. She was quite open about the reason she had come to Australia. She freely admitted that it was to get ‘PR’. In Australia this means public relations. In the world that this woman moves in, PR means permanent residency. No-one even bothers to spell it out because everyone knows that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is PR—I had to query her on that! In fact she even admitted that she did not particularly want to study hospitality, which is the course she was doing, but had been told by the college agent that it was the best course to guarantee her PR. She is unable to get a job in the hospitality industry, primarily because of her poor English language speaking skills. She is under a lot of pressure from her parents to find work, as she has three more semesters of college, at $6,700 per semester, to pay for as well as her current rented accommodation and the basics.

This young woman and the temple elder both advised me that there were very limited opportunities for work for Indian students in Brisbane, a fact that certainly was not spelt out before this young woman came to Australia. I was told by this respected elder and by the young woman that even the owners of some Indian restaurants exploited hospitality students from their home country, paying them as little as $2 an hour to wash dishes and the like, knowing that they had to meet the work hours criteria set down by their courses. This young woman is in a desperate situation. She is locked into a course that she believes is not educative and is ultimately useless, but she and her family cannot afford even this without further severe financial hardship. She cannot find a job and, because she has no money, she spends all her time with other Indian students speaking Punjabi, which gives her very limited ability to improve her English.

Students such as this young woman are the innocent victims of their parents’ dreams of a better life, and a system that has degenerated so much that it allows those dreams to be exploited. This young woman and her family are now in a desperate position, having committed themselves to a huge debt. Because she cannot get a job, it is unlikely that this young woman will be able to complete her course, which will destroy any chance of permanent residency and, therefore, citizenship.

It is clear from her story that the system now in place, which allowed her to arrive here full of false hopes, is deficient. In fact, the current system is openly and cruelly rorted by some unscrupulous agents in India and some private colleges with whom they work here. What is the future for her and many other students like her? How many of these students trapped in those circumstances are being forced into jobs that exploit them? They are working for $2 an hour, if they are lucky. In some cases, they are even being driven into prostitution. Both the young woman student and the Sikh elder that I met said this was happening now in Brisbane and throughout Australia, from their contacts within the community.

The government therefore has an urgent responsibility—not a leisurely one—to ensure that the existing system is cleaned up. For a start, the English proficiency test must be administered credibly, not by those who profit from passing as many students as possible with little oversight of the skills of those people when they finally arrive in Australia. The system needs to acknowledge that no-one can learn or be educated when they are alone, frightened and impoverished. There must be a safety net and support system to ensure that students like this young woman, from small rural villages in India, do not arrive in Australia bewildered and afraid in a radically different culture with poor language skills, meagre funds and no friends. There is more to education than providing the course, and we need to ensure that the providers of those courses meet sufficient standards to provide real education, not just an adult standing in a room.

Our national reputation in India, as other speakers have noted, is already under a cloud because of attacks on Indian students, which are certainly, in my view, partly racially motivated. The coalition are committed to stamping out fraudulent practices in this industry by raising accountability. One of our key proposals, apart from the amendment I mentioned earlier regarding risk management, would be to improve the service by education agents by requiring them to take a training course—a real training course. Agents must provide accurate and reliable information to prospective students so that their expectations are not unrealistic. When I asked the young woman what she knew about Australia before she got here—what she had been told about Australia—I heard that the reality for someone from a rural village with very low English skills was vastly different from the picture that she had been sold about what she would get when she came to Australia.

We in the coalition are also concerned by the current operation of the default fund for reimbursing overseas students if their provider ceases operation. This fund reimburses students when the fund manager is unable to secure a suitable alternative training place. Our concern is that, given the spate of provider closures, the ESOS Assurance Fund must be close to being exhausted. But, of course, how would we know? There is no open accountability here. We seek to improve the accountability and transparency of the fund by requiring the fund manager to provide the Minister for Education with a written report in each instance of provider default where a claim is made on the fund. We believe that the minister should be required to table that report in parliament.

There is a very strong, robust and well-credentialled private education industry in Australia, but there are some rogues. It is a shame that these rogues have so polluted the development of private education that we need to proceed down this path—but we certainly must and we must do so urgently. It is important that we re-establish the faith and trust in our system of students such as the young woman who came to my office. We are talking about moves that will assist in the future but I think we also need to look carefully at what assistance we can offer some of the people who have, basically, been stranded in Australia by the lack of accountability and the lack of honesty—straight-out honesty—of some providers and some recruitment agents in the past. There are people now in Australia who need our assistance. This needs to be looked at by the government, who, as we pointed out earlier, could have put this legislation through six months ago but did not. There are more people being trapped every day that this legislation is not in place and is not implemented. I urge the government to proceed with a little more haste in the implementation of this legislation than they have with the passage of it.

12:11 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Australia has long been promoted as a high-quality study destination for overseas students. As of June 2009 there were 467,407 enrolments in the higher education, vocational education and training, secondary school, and English-language sectors by full-fee-paying international students on student visas. This is compared to just 204,401 in June 2002, so there has been a massive expansion of the sector.

Indeed, Australia has progressively opened its education system to overseas students, making it more attractive and more accessible to students from India, China, Thailand, Korea, the United States and Indonesia, to name but a few nations. Today, it is a $16 billion a year industry and, unfortunately, because it is such a lucrative market it is becoming increasingly susceptible to dodgy operators. There have been extensive reports of substandard education services and of questionable practices by providers and by education and immigration agents. Last year, a number of private colleges closed down without warning leaving overseas students, who had been promised and who had paid for a high-quality education, with nowhere to go. In yesterday’s Age, a report written by Sushi Das said that:

AUSTRALIA’S international education industry has suffered another massive blow with the collapse of eight English language colleges, leaving 2300 foreign students around the country in the dark over their future.

That includes a 530 students in Melbourne, the largest group, and 130 in my home town of Adelaide. That indicates the magnitude of the problem. I acknowledge what Senator Boyce said in her contribution: that there are people whose families have put their life savings—who have borrowed money—to giving their children an opportunity for a high-quality education here in Australia. We have heard stories of families in India who have done so and, indeed, of families all around the world who have made huge sacrifices for their children to come here. We owe them a duty of care to ensure they have not only a high-quality education but that they are able to complete their courses and that rigorous standards apply to those courses.

Last year 12 private providers collapsed displacing around 1,700 students and the report in the Age yesterday indicates that 2,300 students were affected—that is, around 4,000 students in just the last few months. Quite simply, those students turned up for school one day and the doors were locked. The studies they left their family and friends for—the education they travelled to Australia to complete—were declared over; often without notice.

The ESOS Assurance Fund, which was established in 2000 to protect the interests of current and intending overseas students, paid out a very significant $4.2 million in refunds in the 18 months to June last year to students whose providers could not provide the course or courses that the student had paid for. At the rate of these closures, the fund faces being potentially emptied out; it needs to be topped up. I note that the 2010 contributions to the fund have been increased to a total of 0.189 per cent of a provider’s annual fee income and that a range of new levies to support the solvency of the fund over the next six months have been introduced. This is a positive step as it will mean overseas students will have greater protection and option for recourse. However, it also acknowledges that there is a serious and increasing problem in this industry. I think many senators would have seen the Four Corners expose on this industry a few months ago in terms of the problems with service providers and how the system has been rorted by some dodgy operators, which of course casts a pall on all those very good operators out there who provide high quality services.

Further, I believe it needs to be acknowledged that, when an overseas student moves to Australia to study, they incur significant costs such as travel, rent and fees associated with organising visas, for example. That is why I will be moving an amendment to this bill which will call for the minister to have the power to regulate for certain consequential costs to be accounted for by the provider and thereby the ESOS Assurance Fund. I do not think it is enough that the compensation is simply about the fees involved. There are consequential losses that a student can incur, and that ought to be taken into account. It ought to be a priority of the government to give a level of assurance and comfort to overseas students and their families to know that, if something goes wrong, there is a backstop and adequate compensation for those students who have been left in the lurch.

There have been claims by overseas students that agents and colleges promising them high-quality accommodation and jobs on arrival have misrepresented the true cost of living in Australia. Indeed, these sorts of reports, along with the negative image in terms of some of the attacks against students, have damaged our reputation overseas. I believe this legislation gives us an opportunity to do more. One of the great pleasures of my role as a senator has been to advocate for overseas students. I have dealt with a number of Indian students. I think we need to strengthen laws so that we can ensure that students get the guarantees, the assurances and the legislative protection they require when they enrol in courses.

Just last weekend, India’s junior external affairs minister advised students to avoid travelling to Australia. I think that warning is unfair but I also think we have an obligation to work hard to overcome negative perceptions and to do all that we reasonably can to strengthen our bond with countries where we have a strong overseas student component.

Australia prides itself on being the land of opportunity and a place where education is accessible to all. To lose overseas students because of these unscrupulous businesses—you certainly could not call them education providers—would be a real shame. It would impact on our reputation as an open and fair country and as a country of opportunity. It would also impact on our economy, with a cost to Australian jobs. However, the primary concern has to be to ensure that these students get what they are paying for.

I commend the government on introducing this bill, which will strengthen Australia’s reputation for quality education and services and give greater assurances and support to overseas students and their families who pay significant amounts of money for their children to come to Australia for a world-class education.

I understand from the minister’s office that the Baird review into the Education Services for Overseas Students Act will be handed down at the end of next month and I look forward to reading the recommendations. I believe it is important that the government yet again undertakes to open up this act, shortly after the Baird review, to ensure that we have an opportunity to implement recommendations that would involve strengthening the act. I presume that is what the Baird review will do. I presume that the whole intent of the Baird review is to have a more robust system in place to ensure that we can give further guarantees and assurances to our overseas students.

I look forward to introducing my amendments to protect students further from the costs of dodgy operators in this industry. I also hope that my proposed amendments, if they do not pass, will be considered as part of the Baird review. It is important that this legislation is seen as a starting point for our overseas students and that we are doing more to give them the guarantees and the assurances they deserve. The next step ought to be further reforms to this sector, once the Baird review is handed down.

12:19 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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 consultation 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.

12:35 pm

Photo of Alan EgglestonAlan Eggleston (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to make a few remarks about the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009 because ensuring that standards for overseas students are maintained is very important. The international student education sector has become very significant for Australia. It is very important that our reputation not be sullied or damaged, as has been happening with the collapse of so many institutions and with other events to do with education in the last year or so. It has been said that providing educational services to overseas students has become a very important export-earning industry for Australia. I believe that in fact the value of the sector to the Australian economy is something like $16 billion per annum, so it is actually a very significant part of our economy in terms of the service provision sector and I think it is very important that we move quickly to rectify some of the problems which have been occurring.

There is no doubt that education, apart from its obvious benefits in providing training to people from countries where that kind of training is not available, builds bridges of friendship between Australia and, in particular, its Asian neighbours. I remember attending a meeting of Australian university alumni a few years ago in Surabaya, Indonesia, where there were ex-students ranging from those who had come to Australia way back in the 1950s under the Colombo plan to those who had only graduated from Curtin University of Technology the year before. It was quite obvious that for all of these students the experience of having spent time at an Australian university had added greatly to their understanding of Australia and its culture and built up quite important links. For example, at that time four members of the Indonesian cabinet had Australian degrees, and that simply underlines the fact that education does provide a means of better understanding Australia among our Asian neighbours. Of course, the reverse is true too: it means that Australians get to know more about our Asian neighbours and the people who live there and allows them to form friendships. As a result, there is better understanding between the Asian countries concerned and Australia.

I understand that there are now over 450,000 international students in this country. The Chinese are by far the biggest group with over 120,000 students and there are some 27,000 from India and about 23,000 from Indonesia. In Perth we see a lot of Indonesian students, many of whom it seems go to Curtin University of Technology. In fact, one of the children of the President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is a graduate of Curtin University of Technology in Perth. But, while having overseas students here brings great benefit to Australia, the recent collapses of teaching institutions have very much sullied Australia’s reputation. This bill is, I think, a very timely move by the government to ensure that standards are maintained and that the negative publicity which arises from the collapses of these educational institutions is minimised and brought to an end.

It is not just that students do not get their qualifications when these educational institutions collapse. It also has to be borne in mind that many of the parents of the students who come to Australia, particularly from Asia, are not necessarily wealthy people, that many put their life savings into paying for the education of their children in Australia and that the collapse of these educational institutions becomes a very sad personal tragedy for the students and their parents. Just recently in Perth a very big educational institution, St Mark’s College in Highgate, which had 500 students mostly from the Asian region, collapsed. Those kinds of collapses have become all too frequent, and I very much support the purpose of this bill, which is to introduce provisions to enable reregistration of all institutions that are currently registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students to deliver courses of education and training to international students.

Registration of providers not reregistered will be cancelled under this bill, and the purpose of this measure is said to be to restore consumer confidence in the quality of education services provided across the entire international education sector. That is a very good objective of this government. As I said, the collapse of colleges very much tarnishes Australia’s international reputation, and I certainly support calls for national registration in this sector to ensure high standards of education, to provide fairness to students and to protect Australia’s international reputation.

12:42 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank senators who have spoken on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009, and I seek to respond to some of the matters that have been raised. The questions that have just been put to us by the last speaker, Senator Eggleston, in quite a conciliatory way highlighted the substance of the issues that we are seeking to deal with. The issue here is an industry that has grown dramatically since the late 1980s to the point where it is now our third largest export industry. Economically, it contributes dramatically to this country. But, more importantly, in personal terms it contributes very significantly to Australia’s international reputation and, in the long term, I believe that this industry provides the basis for relationships that should extend for generations to come. Therefore, it is critical that appropriate regulatory arrangements be in place to ensure that the quality of our international reputation is second to none and that allow this country to be proud of its educational attainments. In fact, the future of this industry rests on its quality and its reputation for delivering very good experiences to students when they are in this country.

So I was somewhat surprised when I heard some of the comments made by some other opposition senators. In a chamber that is renowned for its hypocrisy, we have risen to new heights on this question. We have heard that the problems in this industry have only just arisen. I have been in this chamber for a fair while and I can say that I have taken a keen interest in this industry throughout the period during which I have been here. I can remember Amanda Vanstone’s ships of fools, I can recall the Russian training programs, I can recall the joint international colleges and distillery companies that were run out of post office boxes, I can recall the infamous Greenwich University and I recall the actions of the previous government in refusing to deal with these issues.

Debate interrupted.