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Speech: Charges on higher education

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 12 Aug 2021

I rise to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students (Registration Charges) Amendment Bill 2021 and other cognate bills in front of us right now. I'll state from the outset that the Greens will not be opposing these bills. The bills update the model for registration charges for the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students, known as CRICOS. The bills do so by replacing the annual registration and entry to market charges with an annual charge payable by providers who are registered on CRICOS and by imposing a charge for applications by schools for initial registration and renewal of registration on CRICOS.

Following the 2020-21 budget announcement, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment consulted with the international education sector on this revised cost recovery model. The consultation period ended on 1 June, and I note the explanatory memorandum to the registration charges bill indicates:

No substantive issues were identified during the consultation period that warranted changing the model.

That is all fine, but there is an extraordinary lack of transparency in the way this government is operating. The department has not made any submissions to the review public, which is a very worrying pattern. The way these charges will work, indeed, even the formula to calculate the new charges, will sit outside of the bills in front of us. The bill gives the minister power to exempt providers from charges, yet there is absolutely no clarity in the bills as to how and when these powers may be exercised. The government's repeated attacks on public providers and their cosying up to private providers makes me worry that these broad powers may be used to benefit private over public providers. Indeed, the Scrutiny of Bills Committee mirrored these concerns when commenting on the registration charges bill, noting that this bill provides the minister, by legislative instrument, broad discretionary powers to exempt providers from the requirement to pay a charge in circumstances where there is no guidance on the face of it in the bill as to when these powers may be exercised. Unlike the current provisions relating to CRICOS charges, the registration charges bill does not specify the amount of indexation arrangements for the charges. Instead, the amount, any indexation and any exemptions for one or more classes of provider will be specified through regulations.

We note that the Senate cannot vote on regulations in the same manner we can on bills. We know that the same level of scrutiny cannot be applied to regulations and ministerial decisions. This is precisely why the government is continuing to put up bare-bones legislation day after day where important matters sit outside bills.

From our discussions with the minister's office, we understand that the effect of the bills in front of us today is to reduce charges for institutions to register as providers for overseas students. So we are not opposing these bills, but I want to remind the chamber that these bills come off the back of terrible bills like the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021 and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2021, which impose further levies on providers of higher education who are already struggling. While these bills may provide small relief, the government's agenda to decimate public providers of higher education remains very obvious and very stark. That must be pushed back and fought against.

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