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extra requirements for education exporters

19 October, 2009

The government has introduced a bill today in a bid to control the damage that has been done in recently “very rare but disturbing” cases of students being misled by agents or educational institutions. The bill appears right on in reducing the number of dodgy dealers who don’t provide the services they promise, and also the practice of agents promising applicants that undertaking tertiary education will lead to a permanent residence visa.

It is rightly placed to protect the reputation of Australian education providers, and to strengthen “brand Australia” in the global market for tertiary education. Education is the 3rd largest export earner for Australia, so the negative externalities of a few outliers is likely to damage the image of other Australian education providers. Yet the bill also comes as a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to some highly publicised cases of violence against international students (and ensuing protests), and the bankruptcy of three vocational education institutions.

Deputy PM Gillard described the industry as having grown “too fast too soon”, and resulted in attracting unscrupulous providers with few checks and balances.

Opposition MP Bruce Billson gave a very concise rundown of the issues surrounding the introduction of the bill, but believed that the bill does not go far enough. Currently, the bill only requires registration for educational service providers, and the reporting of the agents that they use to enroll students overseas.

Billson’s argument touches on a difficult point for the regulators and the industry: how can the government – and the industry – enforce regulatory arrangements on offshore education agents?

MP Kelvin Thompson has argued that the link between tertiary education and permanent residence migration should be decoupled – instituting a cooling off period where they students cannot apply from within Australia, rather than the within six month requirement introduced by the Howard government. Thompson argues that a resulting drop in student numbers will ultimately result in a “cleaning up” of the industry, and that the government should instead provide more funding for tertiary education rather than requiring institutions to rely on fees from overseas students.

Opposition whip Marino proposed three amendments to the bill, including a “refund fund” when fund managers cannot find alternative education provision should a student’s provider go bankrupt. It is certainly encouraging to see the opposition pushing for real changes (moral hazard potential in the last amendment aside). Perhaps I should listen to less question time.

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