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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 12560

Mr NEUMANN (Blair) (18:48): I speak in support of the education services for overseas students bills. When I was growing up it was thought that Australia's economy was very much built on wool and wheat and, I would note as a Queenslander, mining was coming to the fore. That was certainly the case up at Mount Isa and other places out west, and my home town of Ipswich was very much built on the coalmining industry. But scarcely did people realise the transition going on in the Australian economy. The Hawke and Keating governments internationalised the economy and built on reforms of the Whitlam government, and the Howard government continued that process of the internationalisation of our economy. One thing that most people did not realise was the impact and the value that the international education sector would have for the Australian economy in the long term.

The growing number of international students in this country enrich the culture of our communities and make an impact not just in cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane but also in regional areas. Many of them study in regional campuses across Queensland and elsewhere and they make an impact on community life. It enriches our lives, it brings culture, it increases international understanding and friendliness and it provides opportunities in the lives of many locals to meet people from different cultures. It is also important for our international relations.

I recall just a couple of years ago when I was on a parliamentary delegation to South Korea that a topic raised repeatedly during conversations with politicians and other stakeholders there, including businesspeople, was our changes with respect to the international education sector in Australia and what impact that would have on South Korean students. They were quite reassured that the changes we were making were for the best motive and were aimed at improving the visa integrity of the system, making sure that those people who were coming to Australia would get a quality education, that there were no rogue providers of education and that the training and qualifications were in vocations that would enhance our economy. There were far too many people coming to this country who were studying courses that were unnecessary, as we had an oversupply for those types of jobs, but they were also not being trained or qualified to international standards or even to the standards we would want in our country in trades and professions that would benefit our economy.

The Baird revue provided the way forward in March 2010 and the federal Labor government agreed to begin a process of consultation and improvement. A number of recommendations were made and we have been undertaking the process of implementing those recommendations.

This industry is extremely important to the Australian economy. It is worth billions of dollars. There are more than 460,000 international students studying in this country on a regular basis. There are something like 120,000 Chinese students and about 70,000 Indian students. Go to the campuses of USQ in Springfield and to the campuses of UQ in Ipswich and you will see what I mean. It does not surprise me that those figures have been quoted here today in this place and elsewhere. I have heard those types of figures quoted on numerous occasions.

When I have been to awards nights at the UQ Ipswich campus, when awards are handed out I am struck by how many international students are receiving awards. They come here and go to great universities, like the University of Queensland. I say that as a graduate of that university at St Lucia. It is an internationally recognised university with courses including things like business and health sciences—and in my electorate we see people in South-East Queensland graduating as doctors, nurses and midwives from the University of Queensland, Ipswich campus.

USQ also benefits from international students. I have spoken on numerous occasions to people like Tony Sadler and Alan Rix from the University of Queensland and Doug Fraser, the director of USQ at Springfield. Indeed, I also attend a community consultation at USQ—as the member for Moreton does at Griffith University—where development plans for the university are looked at and discussions of student welfare are examined. The topic of international students and how they are integrated into the campus and community life in Springfield and in Ipswich generally is also looked at.

I want to commend those universities in my electorate—and universities like Griffith University, as the member for Moreton said—because I can see that every effort is made by the university senate, the staff, the teachers and the tutors, and other people in those areas in Springfield and Ipswich to integrate those students and to make them feel as welcome as possible.

It has been a tragedy and a great shame that some sectors of our society have not necessarily seen international students as being worthy of respect and affection. That is a shame. If you travel throughout Asia you will see that Australia is held in high esteem, and it does not matter which side of politics is in power in this country. You can see that when you travel through Asia. They respect Australia for our way of life. They want to come here to this country because our universities offer high-quality, internationally recognised degrees, whether it is arts or business at USQ or health sciences or medicine at UQ. They come here because they want to study. They recognise that Australia, like Canada and the United States, is a destination, a place where they can get educated. In fact, the burgeoning middle classes in places like India and China recognise that university degrees from UQ, USQ, Griffith and QUT in Queensland are well-recognised internationally.

In April 2011, the first phase of the amendments to the ESOS Act were enacted. These include better complaints handling, strengthening registration requirements and include a risk management approach to the regulation of international education. We did that because Baird found—and we also recognised this—that there were problems in the sector. We had some real pirates, some rogues, within the sector who were not providing a quality education. There were problems in the way they dealt with international students and took advantage of them.

The centrepiece of our response—and it is part of this legislation—has been the strengthening of the tuition protection to ensure students are better looked after in a timely and effective way, should their provider close. Sadly, in a number of locations around the country, people set themselves up, advertised on the internet and internationally that they could provide high-quality degrees, diplomas and other qualifications, and yet were rogues, pirates, crooks and charlatans. That damaged our international reputation because people went back with phoney degrees and phoney diplomas. They also closed at times, and we saw that in the media. Our reputation could be sullied that way, just as it could be sullied if we were not providers of iron ore, coal and other minerals.

Having students looked after—the international education sector—is just as important to our economy in the long term as the minerals sector is to Asia. So having students from, say, South Korea well looked after, well trained, cared for and respected studying and paying for tuition in this country at, say, USQ is just as important as those barges along the coast of South Korea going to places like the Pohang steelworks. Iron ore, coal and other minerals are there to be used in manufacturing in South Korea. Being a good provider of international education is just as important.

The reforms in this legislation comprise, as I said, the introduction of the Tuition Protection Service, which will incorporate a TPS director and advisory board, and oversee a student tuition fund and an online information and access service for overseas students. It will limit student refunds to only the unspent portion of upfront fees paid. Other changes include limiting the amount of prepaid fees a provider can collect at one time to one period—that improves the integrity of the whole process from a financial point of view—requiring non-exempt providers to keep initial prepaid fees in a special account until a student commences their first study period. We want to make sure there is financial integrity in the scheme.

Before I close and before we reach 7 pm I want to congratulate the University of Queensland in my electorate for receiving $440,000 for research. They have received it from the federal government to fund an innovative research project at the Healthy Communities Research Centre based at the Ipswich campus. The research will focus on how changes in urban biodiversity affect our health, and it is just one of many projects undertaken by the University of Queensland's HCRC, better known for its headline project, 'The Ipswich Study'. That is an important step forward. The University of Queensland received over $38 million for 120 different projects in that funding. I want to congratulate the University of Queensland and the University of Southern Queensland for the work they do in my electorate, and for the way they treat international students. I commend this legislation to the House.

Debate interrupted.