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Thursday, 11 October 2012
Page: 7999

Senator MASON (Queensland) (13:29): Firstly, I congratulate my friend Senator Cash on a typically lucid and eloquent address as always. As Senator Cash has pointed out, the coalition does support the Migration Legislation Amendment (Student Visas) Bill 2012, but with some reservations. As is so often the case with this government's legislation, we do support the policy or the policy objective but we are concerned about some details of implementation. In this case we have concerns about some compliance mechanisms of the new visa cancellation procedures.

I am happy to say that there is a political consensus within our country regarding the crucial importance of international education to our universities and other post-secondary education institutions as well as, more broadly, our economy and indeed right throughout the world in terms of diplomacy and soft power. That I think is broadly a bipartisan consensus. Australia hosts and educates the third largest number of international tertiary students in the world after the United States of America and the United Kingdom. The proportion of international to domestic tertiary students in our country is more than three times the OECD average. On a per capita basis Australia educates more young people from overseas than any other nation on earth. We are a destination of choice for young people from nearly 200 nations. It is one of our great national achievements in fact. In terms of exports, education benefits the Australian economy nearly as much as gold and a few billion dollars more than tourism. It is not our beaches, the Great Barrier Reef or the Outback that is bringing in most visitors to Australia; it is in fact our lecture halls. The most common answer to the famous tourism ad slogan 'Where the bloody hell are you?' is 'At university studying.'

Spectacular natural beauty and abundant natural resources make us a lucky country but a successful world-class education sector makes us a smart country. I think we should try to depend more on our smarts than our luck in the future. This is the only sensible and indeed the only sustainable way forward. Despite international student enrolments having fallen in the last couple of years—that is true—our higher education enrolments have in fact flattened. Some might argue that this suggests a continuing downward trend in international student enrolments in Australia. I disagree with that. In international education, just like in politics, demography is destiny, and demography favours Australian higher education—there is no doubt about that. Next door to us, throughout Asia and particularly in China and India, their middle classes are growing at a prodigious rate—the result of decades of sustained economic growth and indeed spreading prosperity. The growth of the middle class in turn fuels the demand more and more for higher education. Both China and India are very aware of that and are spending billions and billions of yuan and rupees to expand their own tertiary education system. But no matter how much they spend, it is unlikely that they will be able to expand quickly enough. So the demand is likely to outstrip the domestic supply.

Worldwide right now there are about 2½ million people studying outside of their home countries. Some estimate that their number will increase to eight million students studying overseas in the next decade or so. Australia is in a unique position, both in terms of geography and our existing infrastructure, to take advantage of this demand, particularly since we are able to offer—let's face it—a premium product. Not only are our degrees prestigious and carry a lot more weight around the world; in addition, we offer not just education but also an educational experience: a few memorable years of enjoying our lifestyle and our culture as well as building valuable contacts and connections for the future.

We should not as a country be satisfied with merely being the bread basket of Asia or indeed being just its mining pit when we could also be its lecture hall. Just as in the past Australia has ridden to prosperity on the sheep's back and is now riding on the mining conveyor belt, so too can it in the future ride on the shoulders of our scholars and our educators. Already our country is a global superpower in terms of natural resources, agriculture and usually in sporting prowess—so we are a superpower—and I tell people here and overseas that we are also an education superpower. But this is a status that we have to carefully guard and nurture. Our competitors in international education services—countries like the United States and indeed the United Kingdom—are watching and waiting all the time for Australia to stumble so that they can make inroads into our share of the international education market. That is why it is so essential to get the policy settings right, including those in the area of immigration, balancing the needs of our education industry with the need to ensure the integrity of our migration system.

This bill amends the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2003 and the Migration Act 1958 so that a decision to cancel a student visa will be done on a case-by-case basis. The current system automatically cancels student visas when the holder of that visa breaches the academic progress or attendance requirements. Also, a change in contact details of a holder of a student visa must now be reported to the government by the education provider within 14 days of the education provider becoming aware of the change.

The impetus for this change comes from the 2011Strategic Review of the Student Visa Program, commonly referred to as the Knight review. The review was set up 'in response to concerns about the competitiveness of Australia's international education sector and the integrity of the student visa system'. Senators will be aware that the Hon. Michael Knight was a minister in a former New South Wales Labor government. I would actually like to pay him a tribute. His report is a model of clarity, both in its expression and in its call for remedial action, and I would like to congratulate him for that. Mr Knight's review followed the review by the Hon. Bruce Baird of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000.

Both the Knight review and the Baird report reflect the government's determination to decouple education and study from residency and immigration. Can I just say that I agree with the government. Whilst some students might well seek citizenship—and that is fine; some overseas students seek citizenship—for the tens of thousands of overseas students who study here, immigration is a different claim and a different process. Immigration should not be the automatic entitlement of the privilege of studying in Australia. The Knight review made 41 recommendations, and the government gave the review in-principle support. A majority of the changes have already been implemented, and this bill seeks to implement recommendation 24 of the Knight review, which states:

Automatic cancellation of student visas should be abolished and replaced by a system in which information conveyed by SCVs—

that is, student course variations—

is used as an input into a more targeted and strategic analysis of non-compliance.

This change is supported by all stakeholders and was supported by all the submissions and the witnesses when the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs held an inquiry into this bill.

As I mentioned at the outset, the coalition supports the bill, albeit we have some concerns about the implementation and compliance issues. Among other issues, and these were addressed by Senator Cash explicitly and in some detail in her speech, the coalition is concerned that the requirement that education service providers must notify the Department of Immigration and Citizenship of any changes in student contact details may well be onerous, particularly on some of the smaller providers. There is also an issue about how education providers upload information to the database—that is, the Provider Registration and International Student Management System, PRISMS. As Senator Cash pointed out, this raises some issues of privacy. We will certainly monitor the rollout of the new procedures and the new system to ensure that it functions well, achieves its objectives and does not place an unreasonable burden on providers.

Australia is a nation of immigrants. Whether people from other nations seek to study here or live here, the integrity of our immigration system is vital to ensuring public confidence in the system and in making sure that our immigrants and our students add to our national life.