Pic source: go8.edu.au
Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (12:03): I rise to speak in support of the government's Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Streamlining Regulation) Bill 2015. We have over 2½ million international students studying in our great country. It is, as Senator Carr said, one of our great export success stories. In my own home state of Victoria we are keenly aware of the benefits of a vibrant and efficient international education system, but we are also aware that it is where issues arose and risks were exposed. As a result, we are keenly aware of the importance of having an appropriate regulatory environment for international education so we can continue to provide a world-class education to students from around the world, and particularly those in our immediate region, who seek to have all the great things that Australian higher education can give them.
International students studying at our institutions are provided with a new way of learning. Rather than focusing on rote learning, there is a lot more team work and collaboration. There are team assignments et cetera, which they do not necessarily have exposure to in their own education systems. That is in addition to the personal friendships that they make. Many of them build fabulous friendships. We have heard time and again that the relationships that are formed through studying and working together can often lead to some fantastic outcomes once people get out into their professions and become leaders. I look at the Old Colombo Plan, and indeed the New Colombo Plan, in terms of delivering on all that international exchange can provide both for the exchange and the exchanger.
International education also provides over 130,000 jobs in Australia. It is a very significant industry. The Deloitte report, looking at where is our competitive advantage as a nation post the mining boom, identified international education as one of the top five industries that are going to provide an economic underpinning for our nation going forward. So it is very important to get the settings around this right. We are not the only place where students can choose to study. We are No. 3 behind the UK and the US. It is a highly competitive environment. Canada wants more—everybody wants more—of the international student pie, so we have to get the settings right.
There is a complex interrelationship between the various arms of government that impact on a student's decision as to where they are going to study. It is not just about the reputation of the higher education institution. It is about the visa settings, post-education and pre-education, the value of the dollar and the distance from their home. So there are a whole range of issues interplaying here.
That is why I am incredibly pleased that our government has chosen to approach international education from a strategic perspective. We set up a council—a group, if you like—and we got the ministers responsible in all those different areas, as I said, to come together for the first time and start to have a national conversation around where we are going to focus with international education.
When I went to uni and sat on a university governing council, international students were seen as the cash cow. International students were seen as the way for higher education institutions to underpin their balance sheets. That is not an educative process. International students were wrongly viewed as a way to make up for successive governments' shortfalls in funding for higher education institutions. Our government has gone back to the drawing board and has put trade, education, foreign affairs and immigration in the same room and has said, 'How can we focus on building this industry from a strategic perspective and really deliver outcomes, not just for our institutions and our local economies but also for our regions and for the very students who choose to study at our fabulous institutions?' So well done; because it is an incredibly international competitive environment.
The amendments to the Education Services for Overseas Students Act—or, as we are all calling it here today, the ESOS Act—will have the practical effect of reducing certain unnecessary regulatory burdens currently placed on education institutions. This legislation will also improve the quality and reputation of Australia's international education industry whilst maintaining protection for students. The contributions of Senator Carr and Senator Simms went to that very important issue. We do not back away from that at all. As you will see later in the week with our VET FEE-HELP bill, we are very, very focused on ensuring that international students and domestic students are protected in our educational systems. At the end of the day, if we do not protect students, they do not have to purchase international education from us; they can go somewhere else—and they will. This is a highly mobile population. We on this side of the parliament are very well aware of that. So any amendments that we are making to the Education Services for Overseas Students Act will absolutely have that at the forefront.
We want to get the settings right to protect students so that they and their families can have confidence that, when they study here in Australia at one of our fabulous institutions, it will be a high-quality experience. We want the best possible experience for those who choose to study here in Australia—out of all of the places in the world that they could choose to study in. We want it to be enriching and valuable to their personal lives and, indeed, to their professional lives over the course of whatever they do. Ultimately, we want to protect those students who are far away from home studying in a place where English is their second language or, in some cases, their third and who are far away from their usual support structures. We want to have integrity of process and an education system that reflects the fair society we endeavour to always have in this country. The Prime Minister has made it very clear that we are a government that is focused on fairness, and fair principles underpin the changes that we have put forward as part of this legislation.
In his contribution, Senator Carr made consistent reference to dodgy providers. I know through the work of the committee that you chair, Madam Acting Deputy President Lines, and which I am the deputy chair of, that this is an experience and an issue that we are very, very aware of and I know that we are both committed to ensuring that students, whether they are domestic or international, are not subject to unethical practices that seek to take advantage of a person's disadvantage. As I said, the VET FEE-HELP bill is coming through later on this week, and I am looking forward to both the Greens' and the ALP's support for the measures to crack down on those dodgy providers so that we can continually get more and more integrity into our system. We know how serious the VET scandal is. We know that the former government did not mean for these unintended consequences to occur as a result of their legislation. But the reality is that that is how these unethical operators have chosen to treat students—and we are not going to have truck with it. So we really do look forward to your support.
Senator Carr also spoke about reputational damage to our nation and damage to our third-largest export. Senator Carr, we do need to learn the lessons from history. That is exactly what these bills seek to do. They seek not to burden providers with unnecessary regulation but to allow them to be as flexible as they need to be and as flexible as our students need them to be; to be connected to industry; and, at the end of the day, to be focused on outcomes so that the student experience is fulsome and valid for them. We are not a do-nothing coalition. We have identified the cheats of the industry and the blind-eye mentality of the previous Labor government. We know that they were allowed to get away with it under the previous government, and we say to the Australian public that it will not happen again. Vulnerable students will never again be able to be taken advantage of in a heinous way. Never again will taxpayers' money be used to prop up crooked operators who tarnish our valuable and vital international education industry.
We need a comprehensive scheme—and this is the world's most comprehensive student protection scheme; absolutely—but we need it to be targeted on where the risk is. We need it to be focused on where it can give the most benefit to the international students and to those providers who employ over 130,000 Australians in our communities and provide such a significant contribution to our economy.
They need to be able to be freed up from the unnecessary regulation whilst keeping the regulation that will benefit in terms of protecting students.
Senator Carr went to the process of consultation. These bills have come as a result of extensive consultation with international education stakeholders. As I have said, our government has been talking to stakeholders in international education for a very long time. Very early in coming to government we recognised this as one of the key pillars of our economy going forward and pulled together the right ministers who have been focused on getting a strategic vision for our nation in this space. We are across the detail. That is why we know what changes to make and where to make them. That is what is important.
Our Department of Education and Training was even congratulated by the Council of International Students. I noticed that, while Senator Carr was very keen to talk about the TAFE directors—who, might I say, have a bit of a conflict of interest in the comments they made around designated accounts—the Council of International Students, the very people this legislation seeks to protect and who we congratulate on coming, congratulates the department for its 'commitment to ensuring that student voices' are heard. In turn, the reforms are very well tailored to solve the real loopholes and problems. They conscientiously seek to add and continually improve the legislation that underpins the successful operation of our international export industry.
The coalition has acted on the plethora of negative evidence about the scheme and delivered this suite of bills to rectify the highly embarrassing problem. We will be tabling our report to this legislation later in the day. It was a really interesting set of submissions that we got. I wanted to briefly read some of the submissions to our committee that support the amendments the government is putting forward.
The Australian Council for Private Education and Training said that the amendments:
Are common sense regulatory reforms that align the domestic and international regulatory frameworks and clarify and confirm the roles of the regulators.
They will reduce the overlap and duplication that has been apparent. And there is overlap and duplication. While those on the other side do not see that as an issue, here on this side we recognise that when you duplicate and overlap what you actually do is waste time. And what you do for organisations that are focused on providing education is you cost productivity; because, while you are filling out all those forms for two different regulators, you are taking your eye off the prize. What you should be doing is providing a quality educational experience for international students in this country.
The Overseas Students Ombudsman said:
The OSO transfers certain complaints to the TPS, where it is better suited to deal with those complaints. This includes complaints about provider closures and complaints about an unpaid refund following a student visa refusal, where the TPS can pay the refund directly to the student.
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection noted that the amendments reflect Australia's visa program. They said:
Increasing the flexibility of education providers to claim more than 50 per cent of tuition fees upfront complements Australia's student visa framework, in which some students are required to show that they have sufficient financial resources to cover course fees, living expenses and travel costs in order to obtain a student visa. The financial requirements for student visas are designed to reduce the risk of international students experiencing financial hardship while in Australia and ensure that international students have adequate financial support for the duration of their studies.
Another inquiry that the committee is looking at goes to working visas. We heard about the shonky practices of 7-Eleven. In certain countries it was promoted that you would have no problems at all in Australia as an international student getting a job. You really did not need to worry too much about having enough money in the bank account to cover your full costs because you could always get job. What we have seen is those students absolutely exploited over a long period of time with respect to that. They are having to take on work that is not appropriately or legally renumerated, which is a great shame. We need to ensure that the legislation surrounding and regulating international students' education does complement our visa program.
Australian Government Schools International noted that often it is not the students themselves who are responsible for paying for their courses but parents, governments or other organisations, all of whom might prefer the option to pay all fees up-front upfront. Their evidence is that 'removing the restriction on payments of 50 per cent of tuition fees provides parents and students with greater choice and flexibility'. Here on this side we understand that flexibility, particularly in education, is fundamental.
When I went to uni to study science in Melbourne, I had to be there from nine to five. It was not a 20-hour a week course. I had to be there on campus. I had to move away from home if I needed to et cetera. Going back to study as a mature age student the flexible options were fantastic because by then I was a parent of many young children—fabulous young adults now—and I needed the flexibility. I was living in regional Australia, so I needed the flexibility afforded by online options and indeed studying on weekends or studying at night—being able to fit into my own life. That increasingly over time is exactly where higher education has had to position itself in order to meet the expectations, not just of international students, but also of our domestic student cohort. Funnily enough, it fits in with our government's focus on having an agile economy that meets the demands of our citizenry and our economy.
Universities Australia also noted that parents would prefer to make payments of more than 50 per cent and, because of the difficulty of getting funds out of some countries due to internal unrest or restriction, some parents would prefer to make tuition payments up front rather than leaving large sums of money in students' everyday accounts in Australia. That is a very sensible common sense approach to the reality of what we are dealing with, that these people are not growing up in the very comfortable leafy suburbs which the Greens represent or even in the suburbs the Labor Party represents. These students come from places where the stability of financial institutions and the stability of the wider society cannot be guaranteed.
The Independent Schools Council of Australia and the Australian Council for Private Education and Training also made positive comments. The report will be handed down later today. Obviously, as a government senator, I am incredibly proud of the legislation which seeks to get the balance right between protecting students and growing our industry.