Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Streamlining Regulation) Bill 2015 - Speech 1

It is also a great pleasure to rise to support this particular piece of legislation and associate myself with the comments of my colleague Senator Fawcett, who was right to say it is extremely important that we maintain the competitiveness and cost-effectiveness of our university sector if we want it to maintain its position as a very attractive place for international students to come to study. I certainly want to maintain that position. 

It is one of the largest export earners in our country. It has huge upside potential to grow, particularly with the growth to our north in the Asia-Pacific region. Like many of our export industries, it stands in a uniquely geographically determined area that can benefit from the rise of Asian countries and the increasing numbers in the Asian middle class. Of course, those people, as they go to the middle class, want a better education for their children—they are no different to Australians—they want a better future for their grandchildren and they will look to other areas of the world to make sure that they can receive the best education possible so that they can live up to that potential.

I do think education is somewhat different in that it faces different challenges and risks than other sectors that are similarly exposed to that Asian growth—for example, in agriculture where the rise of an Asian middle class will certainly drive uptake of premium Australian products. As people seek to define themselves by the clothes they wear, the cars they drive and the food they eat, they will look to countries like Australia, which are known to produce premium food, to seek those needs. While that phenomenon will be there—people will look to higher quality education—another thing will happen in parallel to the increasing economic growth and sophistication of Asian economies, and that will be the improvement of their universities in Asia. Their universities will increasingly become some of the better in the world as they invest in their own institutions, as their economies become stronger and more able to invest in higher education to a similar extent than we can in this country.

That will create both opportunities and challenges for our university sector. The opportunity will be there because there will be increased demand from both numbers of students in Asia and also the willingness to pay for a good-quality education from Asia. There will also be increases in supply of high-quality education in our region, particularly in Asian countries and that will make it more difficult for our domestic university sector to compete.

Just to labour on this point a little bit, in a particular ranking released earlier this year—there are different measures of world university rankings—the 2014-15 rankings reported that two Asian universities are now in the top 25. The University of Tokyo and the National University of Singapore are now within the top two of the 25, compared with only one last year and none in 2011-12. Five years ago there were no Asian universities in the top 25 in the world and now there are two. I have not got this particular ranking in front of me for all universities, but the last time I looked there were no Australian universities in the top 25 at all. We usually have one in the top 50.

In the top 50 there are six East Asian universities—from Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and South Korea. Now in total 24 of the top 200 universities in the world are in Asia. That is just a small demonstration of what is occurring in our region and why it is so important that we continue to support a strong, competitive and cost-effective sector here in Australia so that we can maintain its position as a strong magnet for students to come here and study. A key part of that is making sure that the regulatory burden on our university sector is not over burdensome, and is not put in place to an extent which would limit or inhibit its ability to compete with those Asia-Pacific universities.

This bill is not going to be a panacea for all those risks and challenges but it has make some important changes that will improve the competitiveness of our universities the changes that will reduce the amount of the overlap, duplication and red tape imposed on that sector. Senator Fawcett has usefully outlined what some of those changes will be. To put them in context, they stem from changes to the broader regulation of our higher education in about 2012, by which time the Commonwealth government had two type to agencies—with the Australian Skills Quality Authority and the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency—to provide overall regulatory oversight of the quality and standards of our tertiary sector. It was an important development to make sure those standards were maintained across the country.

Those standards were in place for domestic students but of course they had an impact on the quality and standards of university courses for all students around our country. However, because we lifted the bar on the standards and oversight for domestic students, they had not been aligned with the regulatory standards we had in place for overseas accreditation. This is what this bill seeks to align. The education services for overseas students have different regulatory standards and different agencies covering that sector. This bill seeks to align those with the high domestic standards we now have in place. For example, we will allow only one designated agency to be in charge of both overseas and domestic students' accreditation—the TEQSA and the ASQA. We will allow the internal appeals processes of those bodies to deal with any complaints that may arise from the teaching of overseas students, instead of having to go to the and more costly and convoluted Administrative Appeals Tribunal. That will save red tape and costs. We will allow the minister to direct TEQSA and AQSA in regard to the accreditation arrangements for overseas students, just as the minister can for domestic students, and we will also expand the functions of the Tuition Protection Service, which functions as the director of that service, which is in place to help protect overseas students and the quality of their studies.

All of those changes would appear to be supported by the opposition, at least in the recently tabled Senate committee report into this bill. They did not see opposition from Labor senators on that committee. I welcome that support. The Greens unfortunately, in their dissenting report, have rejected all of those changes and have not proposed any alternative scheme. The Greens have harped back to the fact that a lot of these things were put in place in the 2009 review conducted into the sector, conducted to make sure that there were high standards for overseas students. What they have ignored is that since 2009 we have put in these other agencies—AQSA and TEQSA—to improve the standards of domestic arrangements. We have somewhat brought the domestic standards and obligations up to what was deficient for overseas students. So there is no need now for specific overseas student regulations. That is something the opposition has accepted and I welcome that.

The review which led to the changes in this bill was commissioned in May 2013 by the then Labor government. It obviously did not report until after the election and this bill seeks to put in place some of the recommendations, although further consultation was conducted on those recommendations and we now have this bill. So largely supported by the two major parties in this place is a constructive attempt to streamline regulations in this sector. There are some other amendments that are smaller in nature but do nonetheless provide substantial savings of up to $76 million for the sector. Reporting time frames for complaints will no longer be just five days but will be 31 days. Students will be allowed to pay up front in full for their fees if they so choose. At the moment the up-front fees are capped at 50 per cent. While that cap will remain—that an institution cannot ask for more than 50 per cent up-front payment—if a student so desires to pay more than 50 per cent of his or her fees up-front, they he will be allowed to do so—a sensible change which allows students to have that choice. If, say, they feel the exchange rates are attractive or they would like to make the payment while their parents are willing to do so and not after their marks come back, that is a fair and reasonable change which again I believe will be supported in the Senate committee report from the opposition. There will also be removal of the strict restrictions on regulations of the study period which students must cover—at the moment, 24 weeks. We will make that more flexible.

My understanding of the Senate committee report is that the only matter of disagreement is what is called the designated accounts at the moment. So private overseas student operators must maintain a designated account for the fees and funds provided by overseas students, to put into what seems to be a trust account at the moment—I do not think that is a term in the legislation—whereas other public institutions do not have to do that when they are offering the services. Obviously some are not really competitively neutral between the public and the private sectors and this bill therefore seeks to remove that anomaly to make sure that public and private providers are at the same level.

Senator Kim Carr: "Where are the crooks?"

The problem with the Labor Party is that they seek crooks everywhere and they just want to put regulation on everyone, including on the people doing the right thing. Why should we seek to impose more regulation on those providers doing the right thing rather than to clamp down on those doing the wrong thing? We should be rooting out the people who do the wrong thing, not putting up the cost for our entire university sector. That is what Labor are proposing to do. They are ignoring the fact that we have increased standards in universities since 2009. They are ignoring the fact that the vast bulk of our education providers have a good name and provide good services. By opposing this motion, they are dragging our tertiary education sector through the mud by somehow saying that there are sharks everywhere. Will what kind of message does that send to overseas students?

An opposition senator interjecting—

Yes, Senator, you know a lot about sharks, I know. What sort of message is that sending when most of our education providers do the right thing? They provide excellent services and we should get behind them and support a more streamlined regulatory structure for our tertiary education.

(Time expired)

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