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Monday, 21 November 2011
Page: 9059

Senator MASON (Queensland) (17:26): by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the government response to the report of the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee on the welfare of international students.

Honourable senators will be aware that, after coal and after iron ore, Australia's largest export is education, the selling of educational services to young people right throughout the world. There is a lot of talk in this chamber at times about financial services, tourism and so forth, but in the field of education Australia truly is a superpower. The Senate would be aware that, at its peak, international education generated approximately $18 billion per annum for this country. Indeed, it has been growing rapidly, in recent years sometimes upward of 40 per cent.

Upon reflection, perhaps the growth was too quick. I think it is fair to say that during the Howard government—indeed, in the early days of the Rudd and then Gillard governments—the perception developed in the international community and among the higher education sector here in Australia as well that entrance into an Australian higher education establishment could inevitably lead to immigration or to permanent residency. So an apparent nexus developed between acceptance into higher education in this country and permanent residency. That was not a deliberate policy, but that is what came to be understood. It is fair to say that, in some quarters in East Asia and indeed on the Indian subcontinent, some education agents seemed to be pushing that barrow.

I have to compliment the government on doing this: they deliberately broke the nexus between acceptance into an Australian higher education establishment and immigration and permanent residency. That was in my view, and indeed in the coalition's view, the right thing to do, because—as the government's response to the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee report indicates—the system started to fray at the edges. We had instances in Melbourne of certain higher education establishments offering below par courses. We then had instances of violence against Indian students in Melbourne. You would be aware of that, Madam Acting Deputy President. In more recent times, of course, we have had the tightening of visa restrictions and also the high Australian dollar and increased competition for higher education places from the United Kingdom and the United States. It is true, as many vice chancellors of many reputable higher education establishments have reminded me, that the problems that were caused to the Australian higher education sector really evolved because of very few courses and very few estab­lishments. What happened was that the entire sector was tarred with the same brush. It is quite true to say that there is nothing really wrong with our universities—their standing worldwide is still very high. Similarly, our VET sector is very well regarded. But the entire higher education sector was besmirched by the failings of a few.

Far be it from me to ever have a go at the media, but I think it is fair to say that the media in India blew up the problem of violence against students. There was violence in Melbourne against Indian students, but in the end after all the reports—the police reports, the academic reports and Bruce Baird's report—the violence against Indian students was no greater than it was against any other higher education student. Young people in distant parts of Melbourne on railway lines and in railway stations are always vulnerable, but that violence was played up by the Indian media and that led directly to a slackening of uptake by Indian students of higher education places in this country. It has cost the sector billions of dollars, but it is recovering. It has to recover because, as I say, it is our largest services export industry—much larger than tourism or financial services and just below coal and iron ore. Perhaps at times people think I sound like a broken record, but it is a huge industry with not only enormous economic benefits to the country, and all the spin-off benefits of parents and friends visiting students studying in this country, but also the soft diplomacy and the soft power that Australia derives from all the young people that it educates. It is a large industry with enormous diplomatic input for and impact on this country.

All the issues I mentioned resulted in the government commissioning two reviews: the Baird review into governance of the international student sector and student support and the Knight review into student visas. As well as that, the Senate com­missioned the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee to conduct this inquiry into the welfare of international students in June 2009. Two years later, nearly to the day, the government has replied. I must be in a very good mood because I am going to be very generous to the government, which is not my usual stance. I am in a very generous mood. The government's response has adopted all the recommendations of the Senate committee's report and I salute the government for so doing. In the interim, many of the issues raised in the Senate committee's report have been developed further by the Baird review and more recently by the Knight review. In the areas of student welfare and international student visas, both those very important aspects of a huge industry have been dealt with. It is a pity perhaps that it took the government two years to reply, but in the spirit of bipartisanship it must be said that the government, with the cooperation of the opposition, has made strides in trying to resurrect our international education industry, sell it better overseas, regulate the industry for quality, knock out the dodgy providers and make Australian education once again one of our proudest industries, and Australia the superpower it has always been in the area.