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Wednesday, 8 November 2000
Page: 22485


Dr MARTIN (7:07 PM) —The package of bills that we are dealing with this evening goes to the issue of education services for overseas students. There are quite a number of bills that are dealing with that. The major measures contained in this legislation go to the following matters: the registration, on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students, of courses and providers of education services to overseas students; responsibility to refrain from misleading or deceptive recruitment; responsibility to refund student fees in cases of closure, through a provider managed trust account—the notified trust account—requiring the provider to deposit prepaid course fees; provider membership of a tuition assurance scheme to ensure student access to alternative tuition in cases of provider closure; and penalties of suspension and cancellation from the Commonwealth register referred to earlier.

As the honourable member for Cook pointed out, this package builds on legislation introduced by the former Labor government in 1991. Whilst some deficiencies over time have been recognised, which saw the need for legislation to come forward again, I think the basic reason for the legislation is to provide protection for students coming from overseas countries and for the providers of educational services in this country. Both sides of this parliament have recognised for some considerable period of time that this is necessary and have moved accordingly to put it in place.

I also find myself in agreement with the honourable member for Cook inasmuch as he has talked about the role that education services play in terms of being an export earner for this country and a springboard, or a stepping board, for a number of related outcomes. The first of those is increased tourism. As students come here, families subsequently come back for holidays. The other issue is that it provides an opportunity for Australia to develop its export industry in a very real sense.

Back in the period from 1991 to 1993 when I was the parliamentary secretary to the minister for foreign affairs and trade, one of the things I had responsibility for was the promotion of Australia's services exports, and I was particularly keen on promoting educational exports as a result of the way in which Australian educational institutions are structured. That goes certainly to universities—and I will come back and say something about that in a moment—but also to technical and further education colleges and school systems. I am sure that we all have students from foreign countries within our constituencies at schooling level who have come because they understand that our educational systems are second to none—particularly in terms of the immediate region. It is of great interest to people that they can come to this country. They know that students who come here get a quality education in a safe and secure environment. I think this is important as well.

This was reinforced to me during my recent visit to Indonesia. During my time there—only for a few short days, regrettably—to discuss defence issues, I had the opportunity to speak to quite a number of people. Notwithstanding the way our relationship with that country is presently structured, I was surprised at the number of people who said they had family members attending Australia's educational institutions, particularly in Western Australia. In talking to those people and asking why they had decided to send their children to this country in preference to, perhaps, the United States or somewhere else, they said it was because they recognised that the quality of education in this country was second to none. An equal factor in their decision that Australia was the place they wanted their children to go was the lifestyle and the security that could be afforded to their children.

I was taken by the fact—and it was also mentioned by the honourable member for Cook—that, in the last decade, the Australian education and training export industry has grown in size and economic importance to the extent that it has been estimated to be worth $3 billion per annum to Australia, and it is our fifth largest export industry. That is quite an outstanding figure in anyone's language. When you look around our immediate region, you can see the effect with which our particular education system has been put in place to assist in that export drive. Not only that, of course, but in Malaysia, I think, they have adopted the South Australian higher school certificate curriculum, so the education is based on an Australian state's education system. I think we do find that that $3 billion a year we are earning has had an incredible impact within this nation.

We on this side are looking at ways we can assist that process when we come into government, through the further creation of knowledge nation concepts. We recognise that we need to improve those standards and that by doing so it offers an additional incentive for people to send their children—and older students, of course—to this country from overseas. This clearly is a real reason why we should be supporting legislation of this nature.

I understand from statistics I have seen that overseas student numbers have grown from an estimated 50,000 in 1990 to 150,000 in 1999, and I am not surprised that that is the case. As I said earlier, in my own electorate I have seen students come from diverse overseas backgrounds, from places like Japan, Malaysia and Middle Eastern countries, to attend high schools and, importantly, the University of Wollongong. I am not surprised that they have done so. At the University of Wollongong—Australia's University of the Year for the second successive year—



Dr MARTIN —I concede to my friend the member for Groom that it was a joint award this year with the University of Southern Queensland, which is in his constituency. I am sure he will forgive me if I concentrate my contribution tonight on the University of Wollongong. The University of Wollongong has in excess of 70 foreign nationalities, who have chosen the University of Wollongong for the quality of education that is on offer there. As is the case with many other educational institutions within Australia, the university is reaching out to our immediate region and beyond in providing educational services. The University of Wollongong has established a campus in Dubai; in fact, Australia is the first foreign country to be given a licence to build a brand new campus in Dubai. As a consequence of that, the University of Wollongong is offering a variety of courses in that particular location which, together with its new campus, will make it even more attractive to people in the broader region of the Middle East. The university also offers a Bachelor of Business Studies in Malaysia and is actively promoting itself into Hong Kong and Indonesia, where a field office has been established. The reason it is doing that is that it can offer Australian high quality, high standard in-depth education to people in our immediate region. The benefits that flow from that should never be understated.

The member for Cook talked about this as well, and I absolutely concur with him. Today's graduate of the University of Wollongong, in some years down the track, may be the next foreign minister to Malaysia—perhaps not a very good choice at this stage; nevertheless, I am sure in time it will happen. Today's graduate in commerce from the University of Wollongong may become the defence minister of Thailand. Today's information technology graduate from the University of Wollongong may be in charge of China's Telecom in the future. These sorts of possibilities are there. It is important that we understand that, by creating a strong, academically sound basis for educational attainment in this nation, not only are we giving those opportunities to Australians but also we are playing a real role in our region, and perhaps a little wider afield, by being able to compete appropriately. The University of Wollongong is involved in that. It is leading the way through its international division. It has people who are always on the lookout for ways in which those services can be promoted—in the same way that Monash University, the University of Southern Queensland and a whole range of other universities are out there actively lobbying abroad—to ensure that it can make ends meet and that it can provide educational opportunities.

One of the issues that the University of Wollongong is looking at at the moment, and it is relevant to the legislation we are debating tonight, is the delivery of educational services via the Internet—the way in which the dot coms of the world today can provide a real opportunity for the delivery of education services. My friend the member for Groom is no doubt going to make some comments about that for the University of Southern Queensland, which was the joint winner of the award because of its delivery of education through e-commerce and through the Net itself. I am sure he will be able to back up what I am saying, because it is the way of the future. There is no doubt about that in my mind. As one travels around our region, you can see that all the prestigious universities of the world—such as Harvard—are in Hong Kong, Japan, and other major capitals of Asia. They might be trying to push their MBAs or trying to do all sorts of other things but, at the end of the day, they are about providing quality education through residential schools and distance education. Australian universities, like the University of Wollongong, are looking at ways in which that can be enhanced.

When students come to our country, they have to be sure that the quality of education will be sound and that, if they are coming here for educational enrichment, the colleges, the universities, the business colleges will remain on a sound footing. For that reason, this legislation is indeed timely. What we do not want to see—as I am sure many of us have seen in the past—is some of those shonky fly-by-nighters, particularly English language institutions, that seem to disappear, leaving a whole bunch of students in the lurch. These sorts of issues can be tackled through this legislation but, at the end of the day, this country has to be proud that it is taking the opportunity, through educational institutions such as the University of Wollongong, the TAFE system in New South Wales, and our high school system, to ensure that we can deliver educational services and quality education.

Down the track it will be returned two-fold because most of the alumni who go back to their overseas countries—whether they find their way into politics, government or business—will go back with a fine impression of Australia because of the education system they have been able to enjoy. If that is the case, you promote a whole range of other things. Yes, there is economic benefit, but at the same time there are also the benefits that flow from better education and better knowledge of each other. That goes into security in the region. As somebody on our side of parliament who has a great interest in that particular issue, I can see the way in which education can play a valuable role.

This legislation is timely. The provisions which we have heard the member for Cook and others talk about this evening go a great deal of the way to ensure that we have a very different environment—where educational providers do the right thing through registration processes and deal with the states and territories, ensuring that industries have voluntary codes and so on that all apply to the same basic goal—that of a quality education, delivered by quality institutions and providing outcomes for Australia down the track that are going to be in everyone's interests.