Friday, October 21, 2011

Laws for Education Services for Overseas Students

Greetings from committee room 1R4 of Parliament House in Canberra, where the House Standing Committee on Education and Employment is inquiring into Education Services for Overseas Students. There were around 20 submissions and the federal education department staff are giving evidence and this is being streamed live. See also "Education Services for Overseas Students Legislation Amendment (Tuition Protection
Service and Other Measures) Bill 2011 Senate Report

The first issue is that Australian citizens can receive financial assistance to attend university in Australia. The legislation allows for students to start part time overseas and still receive assistance. But the details needed to be clarified. It seems likely to me that this will need further refinement, as there will be an increasing number of students who are in Australia, but studying at overseas institutions. There would also be students studying on an Australian campus, but doing there course overseas. Which of these are eligible for support and which are not?

The next issue was regulation of Australian institutions providing courses for overseas students. After the failure of some commercial education providers the Australian government is strengthening procedures for registration of providers and processes for handling complaints from students. Unfortunately these procedures are too late to avoid damage to Australasia's reputation as an education provider. In my view the new procedures will be largely unnecessary, as tightening the visa process for students will have already eliminated the less reputable businesses.

One interesting issue is to what extent publicly owned educational institutions should be subject to the same rules as commercial suppliers. As an example, commercial providers will be required to put the fees they get from students in advance into a separate bank account. This is to counter the possibility that the company will spend the money, go broke and then leave the students with no course and no refund. It would be assumed that a federal or state government owned institution would be backed financially by the government and not go broke.

The Australian Government proposes to make use of the Internet and the web in implementing procedures to protect overseas students. However, as with courses for Australian students, there appears to be no consideration of the effect which on-line courses will have.

The question also needs to be asked as to why Australian students do not receive the same protections which overseas students do. Having procedures such as an external Ombudsman to address student complaints would be useful.

One controversial aspect of the proposed legislation is that education providers have to report to government if a student is more than 24 hours late starting their course. Given that students will be coming from overseas, it seems unreasonable for such a strict reporting regime. It will be interesting to see if the government people responsible for acting on reports will be as prompt. As an example, this will require the regulatory agency to staffed on all weekends and public holidays. The result is likely to be a high cost in administration. In addition, from the Education Department's responses it was not clear what the regulatory agency was supposed to do when a report was received.

One aspect that gives the legitimation a higher profile is the international relations involved, particularly with India. The Prime Minister Julia Gillard, signed a Joint Ministerial Statement on education, when Minister for Education, with India.

Another issue which came up is when education agents are paid. As the student's fees paid in advance will be held in a special account (in case a refund is needed) the payment of fees to agents may be delayed. This raises the possibility that agents will direct students to courses in other countries as they will be paid quicker. That may happen, but it does not sound a major issue.

Where the course is delivered was also raised as an issue. This was to get around the situation where one well equipped desirable campus was advertised and then the student moved elsewhere. To get around this the default location has to be registered.

The issue of what records had to be kept and if this increases the burden on education providers was raised. Curiously the issue discussed seemed to be about requiring the provider to keep records of assessment up to date. This is odd as all these institutions are already registered and required under that registration to keep records. None of the new provisions will help with access, by the student, or by the regulator, if the institution goes out of business and the records are inaccessible. It would seem to me that this was an area in which there could be standards for electronic records, interchangeable between institutions.

The legislation requires the institution to keep the student's email address up to date. That will be of no use in contacting the student, if the students are using the institution's email system and they go out of business, shutting down the email service.

The levies to educational providers will be set according to the risk assessed. I strongly suggest that having a a government panel assessing the level of risk with businesses is not a good idea. A better scheme would be to require providers to have insurance and leave it to the insurance companies to assess the risk.

The draft legislation in question:

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