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Monday, 19 October 2009
Page: 10064

Mr LINDSAY (12:55 PM) —I am pleased to be able to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009 this afternoon. As I move around the world, as we all do, I hear about the high regard in which Australian education institutions are held, and that makes me mighty proud to be an Aussie. Some of the countries that I have visited, countries that would normally turn to perhaps the United Kingdom for their overseas students, have now begun to turn to Australia. That is why it is so important that we have a properly regulated education system and that issues that we have seen in the last year are addressed. This bill will certainly attend to those particular issues. That is why I think there is general support across the parliament, and so there should be, on this particular bill. The amendments that have been foreshadowed are very sensible and very helpful to this bill, the government and the parliament. I hope that they will receive the support of the parliament when they are formally moved by the member for Boothby.

I am very lucky that in my electorate I happen to have the world’s finest tropical university. The member for Jagajaga will certainly agree with me in relation to that because it covers Townsville and Cairns, and the member for Leichhardt will agree with me in relation to the Cairns campus of James Cook University. JCU excels particularly in the marine science area—it leads the world in marine science issues—and therefore attracts a lot of international students. We have Federation Fellows, ReefHQ, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the Australian Institute of Marine Science—AIMS—at JCU, and the Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility. There is a great body of marine science in Townsville that, in fact, leads the world. Of course, Townsville is the capital city of Northern Australia. It is Australia’s largest tropical city. The only way that Townsville has failed is that it is not on the weather map enough. Cairns is up there. Of course, you would not want to live in Cairns at the moment with its very high unemployment because of its dependence on the tourism industry.

In 2008 JCU had 1,681 international students on campus, with about 400 of those at the Cairns campus. That represented 12½ per cent, or one-eighth, of the on-campus student body, so international students are very significant. I am pleased the member for Leichhardt has joined us, because he and I together can sing the praises of the world’s best tropical university.

Mr Turnour —Hear, hear!

Mr LINDSAY —Member for Leichhardt, I understand our vice-chancellor is in Cairns today, but she has had her passport stamped and, later this afternoon, will be returning to Townsville where she proudly lives.

Mr Turnour interjecting

Mr LINDSAY —Hansard should note that interjection. In 2008 James Cook University had a total of 4,785 international students, if you count the Singapore campus, the Brisbane operation and offshore partnership arrangements. If that is taken into account, international students represent 29 per cent of the university’s student body. The point I am making here is that international students are very important to our local universities and to Australia.

With the recent intake at the Cairns and Townsville campuses of JCU, we have seen students come from 50 different countries. It is extraordinary that 50 countries are providing students to James Cook University. The 12 top countries in order of the number of commencing students are the United States followed by India and then Germany, Norway, Canada, the UK, Japan, Denmark, Papua New Guinea, France and Sweden. Students from right across the world are coming to James Cook University—the most significant tropical university in the world. Also in 2009, JCU was pleased with the increase in the number of international students coming to the university for bachelor and postgraduate degrees. That has a flow-on benefit for two or three years as the students complete their degrees. The point here is that international students are just so important to our universities. According to the International Student Centre at James Cook University, there are currently students from at least 100 nationalities studying through the university. All I can say—and I am sure that the member for Leichhardt will back my comment—is: well done, James Cook University. You are going from strength to strength, and so you should. We appreciate the fine work that you do for education in North Queensland and Australia.

In relation to the bill, delivering education services for overseas students is a vital industry for Australia. The growth of Australia’s international education industry has been significant in the last decade. In 2000 it was Australia’s fifth largest export industry, but by last year it had risen to be our third largest export. I was recently in Mauritius, where the students there are studying through universities and TAFEs in Western Australia. This is an example of students who have given up on the idea of going to Europe for education services and who have come to Australia because we are better. In June 2009, which is not so long ago, there were nearly half a million full-fee paying international students on student visas studying in Australia. That is double the number of students in 2002.

In recent months we have heard terrible stories from a number of students about the operation of some private education institutions. The allegations have included students being forced to pay extra fees on top of the agreed cost and then being threatened with the revocation of their visas should they not comply. As a country, we must address these issues to ensure that international students are not subject to such unfair and harmful treatment and that these sorts of things do not damage Australia’s reputation as a leading provider of higher education. That reputation is at stake. Our positive reputation in this field is at risk of permanent damage if these dishonest and outrageous practices are not stopped. The legislation before the parliament today proposes several changes to address these particular issues. It requires institutions that are currently registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students to reregister by the end of 2010. This is to ensure that all registered institutions meet the required standards and so help to restore faith in an industry beset by some recent problems and controversy. The bill also mandates that the names of education agents used by registered institutions be published, whether they work within Australia or overseas.

I strongly support moves to better protect international students coming to study in Australia. The coalition strongly supports those moves. I believe that the government also strongly supports those moves because it has put this bill up for debate and consideration by the parliament this afternoon. However, we believe that because the bill does not go far enough it could still leave overseas students vulnerable. It is not enough to pay lip-service to a problem. The parliament must propose practical solutions to ensure that education services for overseas students are of the highest quality. That is why we have proposed an amendment, for which we have given notice. The amendment is designed to ensure that the changes made to the regulation of the industry will be as effective as possible and provide the best possible protection for overseas students. It is clear that there are problems in the system and that the solution must be to make certain that the industry is as transparent and accountable as possible.

I ask the government to favourably consider the amendment that has been put forward and, in that way, we can work together as a team and get a better outcome for our overseas export of education services. I strongly urge the government to support the coalition’s amendment. This is an important bill but one that needs further clarification to make sure that we get the best outcome for all concerned.