Thursday, 19 October 2023
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Joint Committee; Report
On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade and as deputy chair of the trade subcommittee, I present the committee's report entitled Inquiry into Australia's tourism and international education sectors 'quality and integrity—the quest for sustainable growth': interim report into international education.
Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).
by leave—With 29 recommendations, the report explores the future of Australia's international education sector post COVID-19 as well as options for sustainable growth in this sector. It's important to note, though, that we are not out of COVID-19, even if we hope we are. COVID-19 is still very much with us, but we move on, and we thank everyone in that regard for what they've done to get the economy back up and running to ensure that we do what we can. That certainly comes down to the sectors to which we spoke—tourism and the international education system—during these inquiries, and I thank all members for their participation.
This is an interim report, and it focuses on the international education aspect of the overall inquiry. It lays the foundation for the broader consideration and discussion of the significant intersection existing between international education and tourism in modern Australia. In 2019, international students contributed $40.3 billion to the Australian economy, including through education related travel, tuition fees and living expenses. The pandemic saw this number almost halve to $22½ billion in 2021. Since international borders reopened in December 2021, there have been gradual signs of recovery towards pre-pandemic levels of enrolments and commencements, and that's a good thing. It's a fantastic thing, in fact.
Beyond its contribution to the Australian economy, international education is an important soft-power initiative. Its link to good and necessary diplomacy cannot be understated, and I'm sure the minister at the table would very much back me up on that.
Thank you. Our international alumni who return home are our greatest ambassadors and idea brokers in both official and unofficial capacities. In this way, the international education market provides Australia with an invaluable opportunity to educate the future leaders of many of our neighbouring countries and contribute to the development of an informed and critical mindset. This is so important, particularly in the Pacific, as the Minister for International Development and the Pacific would appreciate. The Pacific is right in our backyard, and they are very good friends, as they have been for a long time, are currently and always will be in the future. The study experience of international students, wherever they may come from, has a substantial impact on Australia's overall reputation, including its position as a high-quality higher education provider. In order to remain competitive with other countries, Australia must deliver a world-class education accompanied by a positive student experience—and we do that. But, of course, there are always improvements that we can look at to enhance the system.
The relatively high cost of living and availability of affordable housing were some of the factors raised as negatively affecting the experience of international students studying in Australia. To address the issues raised, the committee has recommended that the government encourage the expansion of domestic investment into purpose-built student accommodation and work with local and state government authorities in developing appropriate local accommodation models, including homestay. Further clarification of the roles and responsibilities across the Commonwealth, state and local governments may—indeed, surely will—further enhance the oversight of areas impacting upon international student experience.
The first half of this inquiry has demonstrated that international students make significant contributions to the communities in which they stay. This is particular the case for regional Australia, where the committee heard that international students play an important part in supporting industries, such as tourism, as consumers and can help to fill critical skill shortages in many sectors, especially, I might add, health. Noting that only four per cent of all international students are in regional Australia, the committee believes that the government should consider additional incentives to support the promotion of the non-metropolitan areas as study destinations. As somebody who comes from regional Australia, I heartily agree with that recommendation.
In relation to marketing Australia's higher education system abroad, the committee believes that the international education sector will be well served by adopting a 'team Australia' approach to marketing and branding. The committee hopes that this recommended initiative will not only build and maintain a national platform for the promotion of quality education offered in our country but also address the issues of fragmentation, duplication and divisive competition that currently exist in marketing Australian education to the world. Keeping in mind the current issues the sector faces around the high concentration of students from a handful of source markets, the committee believes that 'team Australia', as proposed, should take the lead in prioritising the development of a diversification plan.
The committee heard concerning reports of fraud and criminal activity in the international education sector, including the misuse of the visa system. I thank the students, particularly those in Sydney, who gave us some of that harrowing evidence. It was brave of them to do that. It must have been difficult for them to do that, and I admire their courage. It cannot be denied that a minority of providers, particularly in the bottom end of the private VET sector, have systematically exploited Australia's education system and broken migration law to funnel vulnerable and unwilling international students into sophisticated operations that, in almost all cases, lead to labour exploitation and, in the very worst of circumstances, lead to indentured slave labour and sex trafficking.
Noting the recent announcement of reforms to curb the exploitation of the international education system, this report has put forward a number of measures to further assist the Australian government in stamping out unscrupulous providers and non-genuine students. Some of these measures include reviewing the settings and frameworks of international education regulatory bodies to ensure they empower proactive risk analysis and on-the-ground quality assurance practices. The committee understands that, in addition to fragmentation of regulatory arrangements, the lack of coherent information sharing and analysis hampers the ability of Commonwealth agencies to detect and respond to fraud and criminal activities. It is the committee's opinion that the government should look to implement a more substantial information and data sharing platform that has the capability of identifying potential trends and supports forward planning and cross-agency risk mitigation.
Finally, given that the Department of Education and the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations together have policy oversight of the higher education system, it is the committee's view that both departments should be empowered to take the lead role in advising the Minister for Education and Minister for Skills and Training respectively on whether policy objectives are being achieved in full, including those dependent on actions in other portfolios and agencies. Both departments should ensure that appropriate and holistic measures are included in their annual performance statements.
On behalf of the committee, I extend my thanks to the many stakeholders and submitters who contributed their time and their experience to the inquiry. In particular, I thank the international students who, as I said before, engaged with the committee for this inquiry. I also thank the chair, Senator Deb O'Neill from New South Wales, and the committee members for their collegiate approach; the other people—officials, staff—who assisted in our hearings right across the country; and the secretariat for their diligent and ongoing support throughout, and for, this inquiry. I commend the report to the House.