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Thursday, 18 August 2011
Page: 8574

Mr ALEXANDER (Bennelong) (12:55): I rise today to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students (Registration Charges) Amendment Bill and the related bill. These bills seek to amend the ESOS charges act to create a new fee structure for higher education providers who apply for registration on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students, or CRICOS. Registration on CRICOS is necessary for providers to be able to offer recognised courses to overseas students. This is an area of particular interest to me due to the large population of overseas students enrolled in courses at Macquarie University in my electorate of Bennelong.

We on this side of the House will not be opposing these bills as we support the improvement in processes that arise from the Baird review. Yet this change today is reflective of the possible improvements that could be made if this government genuinely understood the nature of the problems in this important industry. The financial measures implemented by these bills need to be expanded.

The sharp increase in overseas student numbers over the past decade or two has seen a marked change to the leafy suburban areas surrounding Macquarie University. I am not sure of the correct collective noun, but, just like the industrious beaver, I will say that a 'lodge' of boarding houses has popped up throughout my local area, leading to the development of a community action group, MARS—Marsfield Against Residential Suffocation. These concerned residents are campaigning not against the students but against the lack of involvement by the higher education institution in providing for and, indeed, protecting the students. The lack of suitable and affordable accommodation has led to these illegal boarding houses, sometimes with up to 15 people crammed into a three-bedroom apartment. The impact this has on the infrastructure and the amenity of the area cannot be overstated.

Allegations have been made of students with poor English language skills being taken advantage of, sometimes financially and sometimes sexually, in return for accommodation. This is an issue that the higher education providers are not required to take responsibility for through a formal duty of care. As a result we have seen incidents at and around a multitude of Australian universities that have precipitated a massive fall in numbers.

Australia is one of the largest providers of education services for overseas students. Education is our nation's largest services export industry and currently our fourth largest export earner overall, following coal, iron ore and gold. I have talked of this in this place in the past and will repeat it to emphasise the importance of further changes in this field. In 2008-09, education contributed more than $17 billion to our nation's export earnings and was linked to the employment of approximately 120,000 people. The total value-add generated by international higher education students was $9.3 billion. On average, each international higher education student studying in Australia contributes over $50,000 to our economy each year. Two-thirds of this amount is spent on goods and services, injecting vital income into the economy and generating more jobs. any overseas students will remain in Australia, contributing to our nation in a variety of economic and cultural ways. Others will return home and share their affection for their second home as a legitimate business, study or tourist destination. In short, government inaction, or poor policy action, can have massive repercussions for our nation's economic wellbeing, on each education provider's financial viability and on the costs of tertiary study for our own citizens, thereby impacting on the professional and intellectual capacity of our future generations.

Over the past few years we have observed a sharp decline in commencement numbers of international students. One of the great failings by our higher education providers, those bodies that will be registered under CRICOS through this legislation, is that they do not prioritise the package education experience for international students as we see in the United States, Canada and the UK. In these countries it is common for first-year students to receive accommodation on campus in order to assist their transition into a new country and culture. Our providers must compete with these countries and take a more proactive role and responsibility for the broader student experience. Accommodation in the first year should be a minimum requirement, a starting point from which to launch the rest of the package experience. This may occur in private accommodation close to the university, but it should at least be administered and monitored by the provider to ensure that the student and their experience are being protected. I understand that these matters operate alongside the specific matters raised in these bills, yet I cannot ignore the fact that we are willing to go down the path of amendment legislation to alter the fee structures for higher education providers to overseas students but not consider measures to save this important dwindling export industry.

Some of the issues I have raised relate to state and local government powers, yet, just as the federal government has the authority to amend the fee structures through these bills, it also has the ability to implement a duty of care, a standard of values that we expect our institutions to follow. The focus of our parliament must not be to promote unnecessary regulation and bureaucracy to hinder the performance of our great institutions, but the importance of this industry to our national economy is too great to rely solely on self-regulation. We have a responsibility to motivate our great schools of learning to be proactive in attracting the best young minds of the world, giving them the standard of support they deserve and assisting them to reach their full potential. The flow-on benefits to our country will be significant.

As mentioned earlier, we on this side of the House will not be opposing this bill. We support the improvements in the processes that arise from the Baird review, but, just as the Baird document is titled, we are craving a stronger, simpler and smarter system for the provision of education services to overseas students. As I mentioned in my maiden speech in this place, I will remain committed to this goal. For the important role this industry plays in our local economy, for the individual students being taken advantage of and for the residents in Marsfield being suffocated by boarding houses, I hope that the resident of our other Lodge treats this issue with the seriousness it deserves.