Tuesday, 26 May 2009
As the shadow minister for education is unavoidably absent, I will be responding on behalf of the opposition. I have a response that has been prepared by the member for Sturt, the shadow minister for education.
As the Minister for Education said, education represents Australia’s third most significant export industry after coal and iron ore. We cannot overstate the importance of this industry to Australia’s economy, Australia’s university system and the quality of Australia’s skilled migration intake. A strong international student community provides immense benefit to Australian students at our universities too. They contribute to an enhanced cultural experience for our local students and, as many of our international students later take up leadership roles in business and government when they return to their home countries, our own community and business leaders have had excellent networking opportunities with our regional leaders.
Many international students emerge from our institutions and choose to migrate to Australia, providing us with highly skilled new citizens who contribute greatly to our nation throughout their lives. I remember myself with appreciation the good friends I met amongst international students at Adelaide university when I was studying in the late 1980s, some of whom I have been fortunate to maintain contact with in the years since.
The elephant in the room when discussing the contribution of international students is that the government’s 2008 decision to abolish the right of Australian students to take up full-fee places at Australian universities has left our higher education sector dangerously dependent upon the international student sector for its continued financial viability.
In her recent review of Australian higher education, Professor Denise Bradley paid tribute to the great success of our university sector during the stewardship of the former Howard government in developing a remarkably strong international education sector. Indeed, it was during the Howard years that education rose to become our third largest export earner—and to that end I acknowledge the valuable work of former Ministers Vanstone and Kemp as well as the members for Bradfield and Curtin. As Professor Bradley wrote:
Australia has been a world leader in international education. It has also been extremely successful in developing education as an important export industry and Australia’s universities have been central to the development of this industry.
Professor Bradley also gave a warning that the new government cannot afford to rest on its laurels, particularly in a shifting global environment. Professor Bradley said:
But the Australian Higher Education sector will need to build on this success and broaden the focus of its international education activities if it is to remain globally competitive. A critical issue is whether our approach to promoting and regulating international education needs to change in recognition of the current stage of development of the industry in Australia and the strategies adopted by Australia’s international competitors.
The opposition has previously signalled its disappointment at the low priority placed on higher education by the current government. As I said earlier, last year this government created a funding crisis in our universities by removing their right to allow any intake of full fee domestic students. This group of students had provided an important funding growth stream for our universities that was providing significant and increasing funds that could then support improved courses.
In this climate of increased demands for funds, the government’s own Bradley review provided a series of recommendations that Minister Gillard released in December. At the time, the budget was not $58 billion in deficit. Our current generation of university students had not yet been consigned to spend their working lives paying back this government’s $315 billion worth of debt. As the government was looking for ways to spend billions and billions of dollars, higher education did not even make it to the starting gate. $3.7 billion was spent on pink batts—not a penny, not a cent, for higher education; $22 billion was spent on cash handouts. Our universities could only look on with longing.
It took the government six months to respond in the budget to the Bradley review, by which time they had already spent all of the Australian people’s money. No wonder there was only $1.5 billion in new spending for teaching, despite Denise Bradley’s call for more than four times as much. Our universities will therefore remain dependent upon the international student market for their continued viability. There are many other reasons why we should cherish our international students. They deserve better than to be considered primarily as a funding source.
For all of these reasons, the opposition welcomes the minister’s announcement today of a roundtable discussion with international student representatives to discuss ways to improve the experience of international students, to identify and address gaps in support services and information for international students and to address key concerns around social inclusion, safety and accommodation. I believe it is particularly important to address some of the safety concerns that a number of international students, or indeed potential international students, may have.
We are all aware of our shared national shame when we see media reports of international students who may have come to some harm while on our shores. The minister mentioned her distress upon learning of recent violent incidents in her own electorate and it is a distress that would be shared by all members when these incidents occur. While Australia is a safe country by many measures, some students from different cultural backgrounds come to Australia and find aspects of our city night life, for example, quite confronting. There are areas in some of our major cities that are near to our educational institutions and student accommodation which perhaps many members of this House might choose to avoid at night.
It is important that students be given appropriate support while acclimatising and orienting themselves to life in Australia. I would hope that the minister’s roundtable will contribute to the suite of resources available to international students as we work to continue enhancing Australia’s international reputation as a high-priority destination for study and research. I hope that, in addition to the minister’s promise to include representatives from all international education and training sectors and all states and territories, the government will work to ensure that as broad a range of cultural backgrounds are represented in this roundtable as is possible—recognising the different sorts of challenges that are faced by students from different backgrounds. I confirm the opposition’s support for this sensible measure.