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Wednesday, 20 August 2003
Page: 19117


Mr ALBANESE (10:00 AM) —I rise to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students (Registration Charges) Amendment Bill 2003. International education is enormously valuable to Australia in social, economic and political terms. We are all increasingly aware of its position of growing importance as a $5 billion export industry—Australia's second largest service export—but we must not forget the many other benefits that it provides us with. The educational benefits of the different cultural perspectives that international students bring to the classroom cannot be overestimated. This contribution adds to the education of all students—those coming from overseas and those already here. That was certainly my personal experience when I was at the University of Sydney doing a bachelor of economics degree.

We should not forget the longer-term benefits for Australia in terms of goodwill within our region. When international students return to their home countries with a greater understanding of Australia and positive memories of their time here, there are flow-on benefits to the nation as a whole from the personal linkages created between countries. Australia's international education industry is one of our great success stories. Built on a reputation for high-quality education, Australian universities have the second highest proportion of international students in the world and the third largest enrolments in absolute terms.

Just yesterday the Department of Education, Science and Training released new statistics that indicate that, once again, international student enrolments in our universities grew significantly this year. This year international student enrolments are up by over 24,000, to 170,000—17 per cent growth. This includes an increase of over 8,000 in the number of commencing students, to 63,000. This represents 15 per cent growth.

The Howard government's $5 billion cuts to operating grants have caused massive increases in class sizes, jeopardising their capacity to provide a quality education to their students. Universities have been forced to look to alternative sources of revenue to fill this hole, and fees from international students have been a major contributor to this cause. This has led to a situation in which there are more students but no more money, and therefore not enough teachers, not enough classrooms and not enough books. These pressures are entirely of the Howard government's making.

But to be a real triumph such impressive growth in international enrolments must be matched by equally impressive growth in Australian enrolments. That is not the case currently, and yesterday's figures reveal that Howard government policies have resulted in the number of commencing Australian undergraduates dropping for the second year in a row. This is not sustainable if we are to prosper in the global knowledge economy. However, Australia cannot rely upon past success in the international education market. Having worked hard for our reputation as a high-quality provider of education services, we must be vigilant in preventing those seeking to cash in on this reputation from undermining our position.

Labor has long held concerns about the potential for a few unscrupulous education institutions to undermine Australia's reputation as a provider of high-quality education. While the approach set out in this bill is not the one that we would have taken, it is an improvement on existing arrangements, and Labor will therefore be supporting the Education Services for Overseas Students (Registration Charges) Amendment Bill 2003. This bill creates a fairer system of levying charges on education providers for registration on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students, making the charge relative to the size of an institution's enrolments. Additional revenue will be used to support the work of DEST in ensuring compliance under the ESOS Act.

I also want to note the comments in the explanatory memorandum that indicate that one impetus behind this bill was opposition questioning through the Senate estimates process. As I indicated, Labor is concerned about the actions of a minority of providers acting in unscrupulous ways and damaging our international reputation. It is pleasing to see the government acknowledging the work of the opposition in pursuing these issues. While progress has been made in recent years as a result of continued questioning through parliamentary committees, Labor remains concerned and we will continue to pursue these issues.

This bill forms part of the government's international education package announced in the budget. This package has been strongly criticised by parts of the education sector—in particular the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee. Labor has listened to these concerns and in Aim Higher: Learning, Training and Better Jobs for More Australians, our policy announced in July, we committed to work with the education sector to reallocate existing expenditure to programs which support international education and enhance exports. Labor will initiate discussions with the sector to determine how government can best support the efforts of the education sector in maintaining quality.

Labor's Aim Higher package also provides for other initiatives that will be invaluable in assuring the rest of the world of the high quality and standards in our universities. Labor will introduce expert academic panels to randomly sample student assessment to ensure high and consistent standards in the awarding of student marks. Labor will also ensure that international students studying at offshore campuses of Australian universities are provided with the same quality assurances as those studying in Australia, by providing the necessary funding for the Australian Universities Quality Agency to audit all campuses of Australian universities, including those overseas.

More fundamentally, Labor's Aim Higher package will not just improve quality assurance mechanisms; it will provide the necessary resources to address substantive issues of the resources available to deliver quality education and protect and enhance our international reputation. Labor will provide universities with an additional $2.3 billion, including: $347 million to fix the Howard government's failed system of overenrolments by funding all students at the full rate; $312 million to enhance quality by maintaining the value of operating grants, easing the pressure on class sizes and increasing the resources for libraries and laboratories; $150 million through the learning performance fund to assist and reward high-quality teaching; and $450 million through the `universities of the 21st century' fund to allow universities to become modern institutions of learning and to update their methods of teaching and learning.

This package provides an integrated approach to providing the necessary resources to universities to deliver a high-quality university system and a rigorous system of quality assurance so that students both here and overseas are confident that the education they receive from an Australian university is consistently high. In addition to supporting this bill, Labor remain concerned about the actions of some international education institutions and we will maintain our vigilance in pursuing unscrupulous providers through parliamentary committees. Labor will also continue to work with the education sector to ensure that government supports the success of our international education industry through both the resources needed to maintain a high-quality system and a regulatory framework that guarantees quality without imposing unnecessary regulatory burdens. I commend the bill to the House.