I rise to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Quality and Integrity) Bill 2024. The bill has two broad objectives. One: it is to improve integrity and reduce fraud in the international student sector. Two: it is to create a legislative basis for enrolment limits for international education providers.

I support the first objective of improving integrity in the international student education system. This sector has seen a rise in bad-faith education institutions in recent years. The bill will ensure that institutions are providing students with the high-quality education Australia is known and reputed for and not just a visa. The bill will crack down on the ‘shonks’ and crooks by ensuring publication of performance data about education agents, stopping education agents moving students between institutions for significant commissions, creating powers to pause registration of new institutions and requiring providers to teach domestic students for two years before enrolling international students. I support these changes, because I agree with the minister that they uphold our reputation as one of the best countries in the world to study in. That’s a reputation we should be proud of.

I am, however, concerned that the second objective of this bill—the proposed enrolment limits—will undermine the very reputation we’re seeking to uphold. As an independent member of this place, I review each bill on its merits. Often, it’s not an easy task. When assessing new legislation, I ask myself: What is the problem this legislation is attempting to solve? What is the case for change? How can we uphold proper ethical and governance standards? How can we ensure it’s delivering for Australians in the regions? How will it affect my constituents in Indi?

After interrogating this bill and meeting with the vice-chancellors and senior leaders of universities in my electorate, I have some serious concerns. I cannot support the bill while enrolment limits remain. The bill as it stands would give the education minister broad-ranging powers to limit the number of international students a university or TAFE can enrol. That’s not only at an institution-wide level but right down to the individual course.

I’ve met with the minister—I’m really grateful for his time and that of his senior staff—to express my concerns, and the minister says that these measures are designed to secure the sustainable growth of the sector. But I have four key issues with the enrolment framework proposed in the bill: it has a very high risk of damaging regional universities, it seems to me like bad public policy, it’s risky for our economy and it fails the ethical governance test.

Firstly, regarding the impact on regional universities, in my electorate, Charles Sturt University and La Trobe University are key contributors to the community, employing more than 500 local people and providing courses in areas like nursing and teaching that are vital to communities across north-east Victoria. Regional universities like Charles Sturt and La Trobe University are essential if we’re to have any hope of addressing the workforce shortages that exist right across regional, rural and remote Australia. They are essential if we’re to get more regional Australians into university and meet the government’s target of 80 per cent tertiary education attainment by 2050, and this is a huge challenge in rural, regional and remote Australia.

While the minister has said that this bill will benefit regional universities and TAFEs, he has provided no strong evidence to support this. I’m sceptical because the Universities Accord review, the government’s blueprint for the education sector for the next decade, didn’t recommend enrolment limits. It said that any regulation, like enrolment limits, will most likely benefit the large, city based universities. Put simply, this is because the evidence shows that, regardless of government policy, the vast majority of international students want to study in Australia’s major cities. If they can’t study in a major city then most won’t come at all. This is a global trend, and one that enrolment limits are unlikely to change. That’s why most regional universities also have metropolitan campuses. Charles Sturt’s metro campuses brought in $135 million in revenue prior to the pandemic. This revenue is crucial to regional universities, and it doesn’t fund flashy new buildings. It funds the core amenities and services that benefit regional students and regional communities.

The Regional Universities Network is clear that the ongoing viability of regional universities is directly linked to international enrolments at their metropolitan campuses, but the regions have witnessed the slowest post-COVID recovery in international student numbers, and this government’s stricter visa conditions are making things even tougher. Visa refusal rates are skyrocketing, particularly at smaller and regional universities. Already this year, La Trobe University has seen a $75 million reduction in international student revenue and has foreshadowed job cuts in the coming months. Federation University and the University of Tasmania are also planning for major cuts. Universities Australia doesn’t mince its words and says that the sector is staring down the barrel of thousands of job losses, with the ongoing viability of regional universities at stake.

Education experts and universities in my electorate are clear that this bill risks making a bad situation worse. This bill, as it currently stands, risks making a bad situation worse. Professor Andrew Norton says that the government’s model ‘would cause actual enrolments to fall well below the official maximum number’. Charles Sturt says that the risk of penalties means most universities will operate well below the official cap to avoid going over it and attracting penalties. Put simply, regional universities are the least able to absorb any further reductions in international student revenue. If these job losses and course cuts eventuate, they will have a devastating impact on communities in my electorate and right across regional Australia.

Why is this government pursuing enrolment limits if universities and higher education experts are against it and if, as the evidence suggests, it won’t be effective? The answer to this question leads to my second issue with this bill. This bill has been introduced at a time when both the government and the opposition want to reduce migration to ease pressure on the housing market, and the minister has linked this bill with the housing crisis by saying that, if universities build more housing, they will receive a higher enrolment cap. That sounds alright at face value, and, while I support measures that will address the housing crisis, I am concerned that Universities Australia are right when they say that this legislation is a rushed response to political issues the government wants to address before the next election.

According to the International Education Association of Australia, international students are facing a blame game as the only migration market to Australia that can easily be reduced. In only the five years I’ve been a member of this parliament, I’ve seen governments of both stripes flip-flop on their treatment of international students, depending on where the political winds are blowing. In 2020, the former government told international students to go home as the pandemic raged. In 2022, they asked them to come back by uncapping work rights to address critical shortages in hospitality, cleaning, retail and the disability and aged-care sector. Then, in 2023, the current government extended the poststudy work rights of international students to help address critical skills shortages and drive economic growth. But now it wants to cut numbers.

Members of this government rightly criticised the former government’s policies at the time, describing them—I quote—as ‘distorting student choice and corrupting the market’, a ‘Ponzi scheme’ for unscrupulous international education providers. But now this government is putting forward a bill that few in the sector have asked for and is unlikely to be effective. This competition on who can be toughest on international students is a cynical and unfair play from the government, and it is not in Australia’s national interest.

That leads to my third issue with this bill: it’s bad economics. International education is Australia’s fourth-largest export, bringing in $48 billion per year. In Victoria, it’s the third-largest export, bringing in $6.9 billion in revenue and supporting more than 40,000 jobs. International students don’t just pay student fees; they spend on food and retail services and they drive local economies. They drive more than 50 per cent of international tourism spending in regional Australia. When I go to the Bright Autumn Festival or when I go up to the snowfields in my electorate, I see the families of international students constantly, having a marvellous time visiting regional Australia. Without international students, Australia would likely be in a recession right now. So, while I recognise the importance of a sustainable international education sector and I support measures in this bill that will help stamp out the unscrupulous actors, the economic impacts of the government’s proposals are likely to be self-defeating.

At a time when workforce shortages across Australia are on the rise, we can’t start turning away students that can fill these gaps. Regional Australia needs more nurses, more aged-care workers, more builders and more engineers. We need to support our homegrown talent, but we also need to bring in the best and brightest from overseas. This bill undermines these objectives. Of course, it’s not just about the money. International students are invaluable members of our community, each bringing a little more of the world to Australia. When they head home, as the minister himself says, a bit of Australia rubs off onto them.

My final issue with this bill is that it’s poor governance, with a significant level of ministerial power. As drafted, this bill will give the Minister for Education wideranging control over the international education sector right down to the number of students a provider can enrol in a particular course. I am uncomfortable with the wideranging powers the minister would have over our fourth-largest export sector, and so are universities in my electorate. It’s a significant intrusion of ministerial power into the business operations of universities and TAFEs and an intrusion I don’t think the government has sufficiently explained. We need to bring in legislation that is future proof and minister proof.

I cannot support this bill while enrolment limits remain. But there are amendments I would support that would limit some of the negative consequences I’ve outlined. I support the member for North Sydney’s amendments that would limit ministerial power to set institution-level caps only, removing the power to set course-level caps, which would have been universally rejected by the sector. I’m also concerned that there is no legislative requirement for the minister to consult with the sector when designing enrolment limits. Charles Sturt University says that the bill was introduced with little warning and little consultation. They worry that the government’s rushed timelines mean they will be negotiating caps without knowing crucial details. This might result in having to rescind student offers, causing reputational damage to the university and Australia’s international standing.

So I would support amendments that strengthen the requirements for the minister to consult with universities and TAFEs and the broader sector before creating enrolment limits. I have no doubt the minister intends to consult with the sector, but legislation needs to be future proof. We need to take the risk out of this legislation. We need to know that a future education minister can’t use the powers to drastically change the international education industry overnight. The powers proposed in this bill contain no adequate guard rails and an inadequate explanation of why they are necessary. I would support amendments that inserted a sunset clause to ministerial powers so that proposed powers would lapse or be transferred to the proposed Australian Tertiary Education Commission—free of political influence.

I think this bill can be repaired, but I can’t support it until it is. To reiterate: I support the reforms included in this bill that would improve integrity and reduce fraud in the international education sector. I want international students to be protected from unscrupulous actors and supported to achieve their educational ambitions, and I also recognise that the sustainable growth of the sector is important so that Australia can remain an enviable destination for aspiring students across the world. There is a role for government in this crucial sector. But the enrolment limits proposed by this bill are lacking in evidence base. I am not convinced they will make our international sector more sustainable and I am concerned they will hurt regional universities and TAFEs in my electorate. If this bill is passed unamended, the minister for education would have sweeping powers over the international education sector, with little parliamentary oversight. I don’t believe the government has made a clear case for why these powers are necessary. I would support amendments that would make a bad bill slightly better, but the fact remains: I won’t be supporting this bill while enrolment limits remain.

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