21.3.11 Education Services for Overseas Students Legislation Amendment Bill 2010
Mr HAWKE (4:23 PM) —I rise to discuss the Education Services for Overseas Students Legislation Amendment Bill 2010. I want to record in the first instance my appreciation for this vital sector of the Australian economy. It plays an enormous contribution to the national economy and has in recent years, particularly under the Howard government, improved its contribution in economic terms. Private training providers have led the industry’s substantial growth in recent years. Enrolments have expanded. We have seen massive growth in the order of 70, 80 or 90 per cent in enrolment figures and, of course, turnover of billions of dollars, generating revenue for the government and for the Australian economy.
I want to record my appreciation of the role that private education providers are playing in Australia’s diplomatic efforts in the long term. That may be an odd way of phrasing that, but I think of it this way: in the globalised world in which we live with the importance of our region to our economy and our future, I think it is a fantastic system that we bring young, bright people from across our region to our country and provide them with a great, fantastic education product. It is something we should encourage in our society of today and seek to promote—and not hinder—as a government and as an enterprise. It is the case that that generates lots of benefits for Australia in ways that are difficult for us to measure or fathom. It is not simply an upfront economic benefit; it is not simply a benefit to those who come and work here and who add their skilled labour to the Australian economy. It is also the case that people who return to their countries in whatever part of the region they come from and who go on to be successful will have a higher and developed understanding of Australia. They will have an appreciation for the quality and strength of our economy and for the quality of our education services and products. That is very important for us to state up front, because there is this hysteria in Australia today in relation to people from overseas that has been building for some time.
I want to record that my own background is from a migrant family after World War II, and so much of the Australian story is migration of people who have come to this country and succeeded. This is yet another evolution in the national debate on people coming to our shores and adding a value to our country. Sometimes you hear the arguments spelt out that there is something wrong with private education providers in Australia taking foreign students, something that we might seek to limit, hinder or interrupt, yet all they are doing is providing a first-class education product for international citizens who then go on to reward Australia with an improved opinion of our country. It is fundamental when looking at this type of legislation to understand that that is the basis of the whole sector.
The stories that have emerged in recent times that led to the Baird review which has led to this legislation today I think are minor and isolated. I do not think they are endemic. After speaking to different providers, different industry bodies and members of the sector, I think that government can tend to overreact in relation to various issues that do come up because of media commentary, because of a perception in the community or because of a need to address other matters that are not related to the bill before us today that are hurting a government at the time. It is very important to note that, since the problems with Indian students that occurred in the last few years, there has been a big downturn in the sector. At this juncture it is important to acknowledge that downturn and those figures, because the speculation that came from that review that 20 per cent of institutions are ‘dodgy’ or operate as ‘visa factories’ I do not believe is supported by any evidence. I accept the industry’s assertions in this regard. If you accept that perhaps 10 per cent of operators in the sector operate using some questionable framework, then we are doing is enacting a new series of regulations and standards for the rest of the sector that is already highly regulated.
I have many contacts, some within my electorate, who own colleges and private institutions who have explained to me the regulatory systems, state and federal, they have to go through in order to become certified education providers. I can tell members in this place that they are substantial requirements; they are serious requirements that are monitored by education departments every few years. The standards are high and are rigorous, which is a good thing. But constantly our instinct in dealing with legislation such as this is to regulate. Even if we accept the assertion that 20 per cent are dodgy, we are talking about some 100 out of 2,500 institutions or colleges; yet we are proposing a regulatory change or regime to cater for the 2,500 colleges and other enterprises out there, which I think is an overreaction.
Higher education is certainly the one that the government is keen to maintain. It is by far the biggest beneficiary of international student income. The problem does not lie with those ethical and high standard providers who have been in business and who have been certified for many, many years. Once again with regulation, we tend to see this effect, and the provisions of this bill are no different. There is some worthy intention within this bill. Yet our attempt is a blanket approach which does not recognise or distinguish between those serious, ethical and determined operators who have been hard at it for a long period of time. That is where I have a great problem with regulatory regimes, and changes to regulatory regimes, that continue to treat everybody as if they are exactly the same.
There is a measurable and qualitative difference between colleges that have been in operation for many years, who have received the certification, who have never had a problem, who continue to provide a high quality product in education and who are regularly monitored and tested, and those colleges that we are looking to catch. Inevitably, with the design of any system to try to catch those people, we end up putting an undesirable burden on people who are doing the right thing. I would hope that this legislation is not an attempt to further hinder or regulate a sector purely because of an ethical or ideological viewpoint about the provision of education. There is no doubt that the education unions and other public sector people sometimes have the view that there is a threat or a problem with private education providers, something which I do not think is borne out in the data—that is, borne out in the economic activity or in the outcomes with our students.
I would like to make a couple of other points. When you look specifically at what is happening in the enrolment figures which come from 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 enrolments with the decrease we are seeing in all sectors, this is a worrying trend for Australia. While of course there is an increase overall in total enrolments from 2007 to 2010, the 2009 figure was 364,275 and the 2010 figure was 329,352. Not only does that represent lost revenue to the country, it is indicative of a trend that has emerged out of the many and public difficulties we have seen in the last few years as well as the negative commentary surrounding this legislation and the reason why we have it before us today.
The peak body for the private colleges, ACPET—the Australian Council for Private Education and Training—has acted under its own steam with tougher voluntary requirements on its members to ensure they are dealing with anybody that they find who is not acting ethically or who is acting outside the provisions of the regulation. We have seen from the drop in those figures I cited earlier that Indian visa applications are down some 45 per cent amongst ACPET members. That is almost a half drop in one of the biggest emerging economies and countries in our region, one of the fastest growing economies in the world. We often cite China’s growth, but India’s growth is also exponentially big. I think we have a big future in trade with India, sometimes more than we do with China, particularly if we as a government reverse our foolish decision not to sell uranium to the Indians.
Whatever the case, the democratic and historical links with India as a Commonwealth country mean this is an important nation for our future. A 45 per cent drop in enrolments from Indians amongst ACPET members is a serious thing: there is obviously a problem here; something has developed. I do not think we want to send a signal at this time from Australia to India that we are overly concerned about them, their students, or any other signal than we do welcome them to come here and train at our facilities and pay for the privilege to do so. It is a great system. It brings revenue on shore. It provides highly skilled and educated people who go back to India and have a great view of Australia. Considering the hit in the relationship between India and Australia since the election of the Rudd and now Gillard government, it is vital that we do something to turn that around—India being one of the most prominent countries in our region.
I think this legislation before us ought to be considered in the light of this very important emerging problem with India. I have spoken to members of the Indian community in Western Sydney. We have the largest Sikh temple in Australia in the electorate neighbouring mine, and there are many prominent members of the Indian community in my electorate. I have spoken with many of them. They do feel that the government here in Australia has changed policy towards them. They feel affronted, particularly in relation to the problems with Indian students that happened so recently.
So we do not want to send a signal to these economies that we do not want students to come here and train in our colleges or private education and our workforce. While this legislation has some worthy intentions, it is vital that we do not allow there to be a significant proportional increase in the regulatory burden on colleges, making them unviable or sending out a signal that will then lead to a continuation of this unfortunate trend of dropping enrolments.
I want to turn to the proposed overseas students’ ombudsman for a minute. This proposal responds to strong calls from students during recent consultations for a students’ ombudsman to handle complaints. There is not really a view about that, I think—about the scope or extent, or what it would actually do to improve the situation. It always sounds like a good idea. We have been debating whether to have a cybersafety ombudsman as well in the cybersafety committee. But having an ombudsman tends to be a very reactive approach. It does nothing to pre-empt problems. It does nothing to manage problems upfront. It is an end-of-the-line process.
However, there is some case for saying, of the ombudsman proposal in the bill, that being limited to the handling of complaints against education providers really limits its scope. I think that is a valid argument. Why would we not expand that to ensure that we are catering for any kind of complaint that a student may have? It seems odd, and is probably yet another signal from the government that they are, in a way, unfairly targeting this to education providers, who have been doing the right thing most of the time.
Let us not get the impression here in this place that, out of those 2,500 institutions, a whole range of them are doing the wrong thing. We know, even if we accept the figures that are put forward, that, even at a maximum, this is 20 per cent. So to say that we need an ombudsman for the entire industry just to deal specifically with industry complaints is a rather odd intention of the government’s in this legislation.
It is the case currently that domestic and overseas students with publicly-run providers have access to statutorily independent complaints bodies and state or territory ombudsmen. Students of Australia will now have this opportunity. I think that this recommendation to extend the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Ombudsman has some merit. But I do not think it should be limited to just the education providers; I think that is pre-empting the complaints and has an unworthy intention in it.
In finishing my remarks on this bill I would simply record my appreciation for the sector’s endeavours and its addition to the Australian economy. It has played a valuable role in Australia’s economic development and will do so in future. That is not to say there are no problems or that we should not regulate and deal with those problems as they arise. But I would like to see regulation that is effective—not just well intentioned but well targeted and well dealt with—in order to deal with the actual problems and not simply to impose higher regulatory burdens on the entire sector.