Second Reading – Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2017

Monday, 7 August 2017

Mr PITT (HinklerAssistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment) (13:23): Can I thank the member for Griffith for her brief contribution. I rise to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2017, which builds on the outcomes achieved by the VET Student Loans Bill, passed in December last year. This bill will strengthen regulatory controls and student protections in the higher and international education sectors. I note the member for Griffith’s interest in how strong the international education sector is. I can tell the member for Griffith that it is Australia’s largest service export. It was worth some $21.8 billion in 2016.

I’ve been very fortunate in my portfolio role. I’ve had the opportunity to visit several education facilities run with Australian involvement. Last month I visited the Solomon Islands and toured the Australia-Pacific Technical College—which is the APTC—campus in Honiara, which works in collaboration with the Australian government funded Skills for Economic Growth program. The APTC offers scholarships to train in other regional campuses and delivers training through partnerships with existing training schools in hospitality, automotive and construction. It offers training courses at its own campus. Since 2008 the APTC has trained over 1,130 Solomon Islanders in Australian quality technical and vocational skills. More than 95 per cent of APTC graduates are in employment. Australia has provided over 500 Australia Awards Scholarships to the Solomon Islands to study in Australia and the Pacific region.

Whilst in Vietnam earlier in the year I had the opportunity to visit RMIT University Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City. They do have other locations in Saigon South campus and, of course, Hanoi. They started with 30 students. RMIT Vietnam now has a student body of over 6,000 from more than 40 countries. It is a substantial campus. RMIT Vietnam offers a range of undergraduate, masters and PhD programs in business, technology and design areas and has produced around 11,000 graduates who are work ready for the labour market. The Centre of Technology sits under the umbrella of the College of Science, Engineering and Health of RMIT University in Australia. The centre has developed key relationships with industry to enable its students to work on real life projects while studying. This combines well with its state-of-the-art infrastructure and facilities, such as modern labs, new electronic materials testing, processing equipment and software. Over 6,000 Vietnamese students study an Australian qualification in Vietnam every single year. Vietnam is Australia’s fourth largest market for overseas students, with 22,000 students currently studying in Australia.

I also visited the APTC campus in Suva at the start of the year. The program’s strong results include training more than 10,000 Pacific Islanders across 14 countries since 2007, with more than 95 per cent of graduates gaining employment either domestically or overseas. Around 300 Fijian students enrol to study in Australia each year, with 65 per cent enrolling in a higher education course and 28 per cent attending vocational education and training institutions.

The quality of our education services and the quality assurance system which we operate are critical in maintaining Australia’s reputation internationally. The Australian government has the overarching responsibility for protecting the reputation of Australia’s international education sector, supporting the capacity of the sector to provide quality education and training services, and maintaining the integrity of the student visa program. It is important to note that, for the majority of providers who do operate with integrity and in the best interests of the students, these measures which we propose in this bill will mean little change. These reforms will only apply to bodies approved as higher education providers under sections 16 to 25 of the Higher Education Support Act 2003—that is, non-university higher education providers, excluding universities operating in Australia.

This legislation will address instances of unscrupulous providers transitioning operations in the FEE-HELP scheme and international education sector in the wake of reforms to vocational education and training and the VET student loan arrangements. Changes in the VET Student Loans Bill included limiting eligible courses for VET student loans; loan caps set at $5,000, $10,000 and $15,000; increasing student engagement for continued access to the loan to ensure legitimate enrolments; a new application process for providers, setting a much higher bar for entry; and prohibiting cold-calling or using brokers to solicit prospective students. The coalition government’s action to address these unscrupulous practices in the VET sector has resulted in a surge of VET providers, including some who had their VET FEE-HELP approval revoked, looking to transfer their operations into the higher education and international education sectors. Therefore, it’s clear that the amendments to the higher education and international education legislative settings are needed when compared to the regulatory reforms and protections in relation to VET student loans.

The bill amends three acts to protect students from unscrupulous providers. The Higher Education Support Act 2003 is the main piece of legislation providing funding for higher education in Australia, providing for government subsidies and tuition support for students. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act 2011 provides regulatory enforcement powers and quality assurance mechanisms to ensure the reputation of higher education. The Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000, the ESOS Act, is the key legislation governing international education to enable the government to take action, monitor, prevent and address unscrupulous businesses from gaining registration to deliver education services to overseas students.

The amendments will bolster enforcement powers and oversight capabilities of relevant regulators, enabling them to intervene as necessary, to prevent malicious practices across the higher and international education sectors. The bill also ensures that, as we increase learning opportunities for overseas students and market opportunities for dedicated education providers, we will also shut down opportunities for unscrupulous providers to harm the reputation of our education services. There are a number of amendments to the ESOS Act. There will be a strengthened fit and proper persons provision, which will ensure that the people governing individual education providers are fit to deliver high quality services, which will preserve the integrity of the international education sector and protect students’ interests. The amendments to the TEQSA Act will enhance the compliance capabilities and introduce more stringent provider application requirements to better equip that organisation to implement robust student protection mechanisms. I commend the bill to the House.

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