I rise today to speak in favour of the Education Services for Overseas Students Legislation Amendment Bill 2010. We are blessed in this city to have at our disposal five providers of tertiary or technical education. As a result, technical and tertiary education form a significant part of the local economy here in Canberra. The education sector represents the second largest contributor to the local economy behind government. International education is a significant part of this contribution and it would be remiss of me not to speak today towards any measure that strengthens this vital part of the Canberra economy.
I also have a strong interest in the welfare of students in higher education, particularly vocational and technical education, from my days as president of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology Student Union. At that time the RMIT was the biggest campus in the Southern Hemisphere and it had a mix of vocational, TAFE and higher education courses. We had everything from mechanics and chefs to engineers, journalists and movie makers. We also had the largest mix of part-time and full-time students, and a large proportion of those students were international students. So I am deeply committed to the welfare of students, having that imbued in me from a very young age as a result of looking after about 25,000 students at RMIT at that stage—it was a very large institution, and the oldest workers’ college in the world. As a tutor at the University of Canberra, I also taught undergraduate and postgraduate students from China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. These students face enough challenges being here on their own to study, trying to get used to our culture and our food, being away from their families and trying to make new friends in a new land. When I moved up here from Melbourne when I was 18 to study at the ANU and lived in at Burgmann College, I found it very, very hard being away from my family. So not just being away from their family but also being in a new land would be a challenge for these students—and it is a challenge, I know, from speaking to them.
That is why I have been deeply shocked and dismayed by the stories that have emerged in recent years concerning some education providers and their seemingly unscrupulous actions. Maybe I should not have been but, nonetheless, it was a great concern to me that some of these operators existed—operators such as the catering colleges with no kitchens and the pilot training schools that would not let students fly planes. These types of flyby-night operations place at risk not only the students who unwittingly enrol in the courses but also the entire international education sector and the reputation of education in Australia and here in Canberra. Given this threat to such a large contributor to the Australian economy, and to the ACT economy, I am very pleased that the Gillard government has taken on some of the recommendations of the Baird review.
The Education Services for Overseas Students Act, better known as ESOS, ensures that students who come to this country receive the quality education promised to them—that is not too much to ask. The ESOS Act also complements Australia’s migration law by ensuring the providers collect and report information relevant to the administration of student visas. The bill follows on from the Prime Minister’s commission of a review into the ESOS Act when she was Minister for Education. The review considers four areas of enhancement for the ESOS framework: supporting the interests of students, delivery quality as the cornerstone of Australian education, effective regulation and sustainability of the international sector. When the report was handed down in March 2011, it contained 19 recommendations covering better consumer protection mechanisms, more support for international students and improved regulation of education providers. The report’s conclusions follow an extensive consultation process with those in the sector—most importantly, the student groups, the education unions, international students and diplomatic missions.
The recommendations from the Baird review are being implemented in two main stages, with those recommendations which can be implemented immediately being put first to ensure they are not held up by those requiring more detailed analysis. The bill continues the work from previous amendments and seeks to introduce provisions to strengthen the registration process for approved providers. The bill will require providers to demonstrate, as part of the registration process, that they have the financial resources to meet the objectives of the ESOS Act, that they have a sustainable business model and the capability, governance structures and management to deliver the education to a suitable standard. The bill will strengthen the work already done in this area which aims to ensure a repeat of past incidents does not occur in future.
These provisions will go a long way to ensuring the viability of providers. Certainly, it is my hope that with these provisions we will never see a repeat of the times when the viability of a provider is limited to the current provisions of the Migration Act. I am glad of this because I was particularly struck by the comments made by SUPRA, the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association, to the Baird review. The association stated: It is apparent that the closure of an education provider has a markedly negative impact on the welfare of students.
The association went on to say that, from its experience, students felt significant anxiety—as one would—as a result of dodgy providers. The bill complements the risk management approach agreed between all states concerning CRICOS reregistration and better focuses resources on those in the sector who are at high risk. The bill also addresses noncompliant behaviour by providers by extending the use of financial penalties to a broader range of noncompliant activities. I am pleased that this bill will extend the coverage of the Commonwealth Ombudsman to include students in private providers, such as the flight schools which would not allow students to fly aeroplanes —extraordinary!
As it stands, while the ESOS Act requires providers to have access to an external complaints mechanism, this is not always easily identifiable. Students enrolled in a state or territory statutory provider such as a university or TAFE have access to the state ombudsman. This is a more difficult prospect for those enrolled in private institutions. The bill will provide that the Commonwealth Ombudsman is able to investigate complaints made by students and ensure appropriate action is taken in those private institutions. The Commonwealth Ombudsman will also work with providers to make sure their systems are rigorous, further improving standards.
I am similarly pleased that this bill also delivers on the recommendation to publish the targets and regular reporting of all regulatory activities. Moreover, while providers can appeal against enforcement action, this is no bar to the publication of their reporting data. I spoke previously about the need for transparency and how it highlights strengths and weaknesses. This is another example of the benefits of transparency.
I welcome any move that makes our education providers more accountable and transparent to their students, customers, the broader Australian community and the global community. Education and international education are far too important to Australia’s economy and reputation—and to Canberra’s reputation and economy—to be taken lightly. We cannot assume that the complaints from students are isolated, rare or from malcontent individuals. They must be treated seriously and this gives them the vehicle to do that. We must work hard to stamp out the providers who, through their negligence, incompetence or just plain money grabbing, place at risk a valuable industry for Australia and for Canberra. This bill focuses on financial and business viability and is essential to ensuring a repeat of the past does not occur. I commend the bill to the House.