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Tuesday, 20 September 1983
Page: 1015


Mr SPENDER(8.41) —In supporting the amendment which has been moved by the honourable member for Denison (Mr Hodgman) I would like to concentrate on the Government's proposals to limit the intake of overseas students. If one thinks back to the days following the Second World War one will realise that there was a shift in Australia's perceptions of where she stood in this world and where she lived. There was a realisation, which has increased and , I think, is now widely accepted, that Australia is a country on the peripheries of South East Asia and the west Pacific; it is not an off-shore island of Europe. The geopolitical fact that our future lies in this region finally sank in. Consequently, the closeness of relations with our neighbours, informed and wise understanding by us of them and by them of us and, as a developed country, the assumption of obligations was part and parcel of this realisation. When I refer to the assumption of obligations I speak of such obligations as we accepted with the Colombo Plan which marked our first major realisation of our commitments to this region.

Of the obligations which we must assume, and we have assumed as a highly developed country, a major obligation is that of providing facilities for education of our neighbours in South East Asia and in the western Pacific. Education is of fundamental importance to developing countries for the very good reason that without an educated population, without specialists, they cannot progress. The Colombo Plan, other schemes and the provision of private education in this country were means by which people who would become the leaders in their country could be trained. They would be the doctors, the engineers and the builders of the future of their country.

Education in another country is a window on another civilisation. Its importance has been understood for centuries. The British understood it well; the French understood it well. It creates a dialogue. It fosters a true understanding of the country in which one is educated and it promotes, in subtle ways, the influence of that country. As well, it predisposes those who come here and who are well treated, as I believe are most people who come to this country for education. It fosters in those a disposition to view Australia favourably and affectionately. It improves our standing and our image and we have become judged to have a deep and abiding concern in our region. I do not think the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (Mr West) would disagree with the importance of these matters. I doubt whether he would disagree that those effects are the result of our having opened our doors to education from outside and specifically to people within our region-those from the countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations and the western Pacific. Yet we see in the Minister's second reading speech that this Government proposes to impose controls. On that subject he said:

In the past few years, particularly in 1983, the numbers of overseas students admitted to Australia increased substantially over those of the previous year. The Government is concerned that as a result Australians students may not have been able to obtain places in the course of their choice at tertiary institutions.

Where, one might ask, is the evidence for that? We have an ageing population in this country, as is well known. Even if it be assumed that in some cases Australians did have difficulty in obtaining places in courses of their choice, do we not have an obligation to our region as well as an obligation to our people, and is not a fundamental part of that obligation to ensure that Australia remains the centre for education for foreign students in this part of the world; that they do not go elsewhere but come here, be educated here and be influenced by what they learn here? Those influences should stay with them for the rest of their lives. I say this not only because it is an obligation that we have to them but also it is an obligation, one would think, that, in national self interest, we have to ourselves. Yet we have these controls.

The Minister will be aware that, in 1981-82 12,814 privately funded overseas students were at secondary and tertiary institutions, most of them from our immediate region. He complains of the numbers, yet if one looks back one sees that in 1963 we had 11,158 students. We were a very much smaller country in terms of population yet we were able to accommodate that number of students under a Liberal Government. Of course the truth of the matter is that the numbers fluctuate but the obligation persists. It is an obligation, as I have said, which we must discharge in the interests of our region and in our own interests. For example, what will be the reaction elsewhere in our region to the Government's proposals? The honourable member for Denison referred to this. Let me refer to what the Minister had to say about the Malaysians who have been singled out for particular mention. He stated:

I might refer to the lack of control exhibited by the former Government which has created the necessity to now curtail new entry to both secondary and tertiary institutions even though the total entering tertiary institutions will be increased by 400. For instance, total secondary new intakes from Malaysia surged from 1,100 in 1981 to 2,580 in 1983.

Is that not perfectly terrible? The Minister speaks as though he is talking about the rate of inflation, not something for which we should be glad, not something that we should welcome in this country. He went on to say:

If we are to control future intake into tertiary institutions it necessarily follows that we must now control secondary school intakes. Thus, the Malaysians have been restricted to approximately 1,050 new secondary students for 1984, a big reduction on 1983 but nevertheless equivalent to the 1981 total.

In 1983 the new intake from Malaysia into secondary schools was 2,508 and it is now proposed that the 1984 figure be reduced to 1,050. The Minister certainly was accurate when he said that it is a big reduction. What reaction, I wonder, does the Malaysian Government have to these proposals? No doubt it would, on the face of things, say that what the Australians do with their education system is a matter for them, but what truly will be their reaction? What truly will be the reaction elsewhere within our region? How are we to be judged?

These proposals are short term, ill advised, ignorant and reactionary. They ignore our long term obligations to our region. They overlook the vast benefits conferred on Australian by educating in Australia future leaders and builders of our region. The proposals have within them the potential for immense harm to Australia. Not only will we be judged to be isolationist and elitist but also some may say that in truth these proposals are directed to us because of our colour-because of where we come from. That might be a reaction that one could expect from Malaysia and from other parts of our region. How much damage can that do to us? How much damage can that do to our standing?

The long term interests of this country lie in realising that we have obligations to the region which we must discharge. Our long term interests lie in leadership, in generosity and in a willingness to open our door to people from within our region who wish to come here and be educated. It is not in our interests or in the interests of our region to pursue short term restrictive policies controlling student intakes. I hope that this Government will come to realise that matter. I wonder how these proposals sit with the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden) and his publicly stated perception that our future lies in this region. Of course, these proposals draw us back from this region and say to those who wish to come here that the door will be closed to large numbers of them and that they can go elsewhere. It is beyond comprehension that any government could think that that kind of policy was in the interests of this country or of this region.