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Wednesday, 17 October 1984
Page: 1886

Senator PETER BAUME(5.44) —In this cognate debate I will confine my comments to the Overseas Students Charge Amendment Bill 1984, a Bill which the Opposition does not oppose, but on which I will make a few comments. The Bill increases the charge which is to be levied on private overseas students in a way which seems reasonable and proper. It does, however, provide the opportunity to examine the place and financing of private overseas students. Honourable senators will note that Senator Kilgariff only a few moments ago drew attention to the need for Australia to have a policy which accepts private overseas students with generosity and with propriety. Therefore, consideration of this Bill is quite timely. It is particularly timely because the Government has before it at the moment an unresolved problem in relation to its handling of private overseas students. This Bill provides an opportunity for honourable senators to make contributions to the debate in a genuine search for a bipartisan policy on how Australia should approach, deal with and consider the question of accommodating the needs of private overseas students and resident Australians.

The Opposition, as an aid to good debate and in the hope that we can assist the Government in its consideration of this matter, which was a subject of public discussion, announced a policy position on 3 September. We did this to ensure that the Government had before it in its discussions the fullest possible range of policy options. We thought the Government should know where the Opposition stood because it may assist in the decisions which it must reach in what is really a very difficult matter. The Opposition-the Liberal and National parties- has considered the problems which have faced the Australian community in relation to the accommodation of private overseas students, problems which relate to displacement of resident Australians from places on campus. The Opposition has opted for a policy which will allow continuing access to education institutions by overseas students and at the same time a policy which will maintain a maximum number of places for resident Australians. If the Government could achieve those two goals-if we could achieve them together-that would be the approach that would be in the best interests of the country and in the best interests of the kinds of international obligations to which honourable senators referred in the preceding debate.

I suppose that the Opposition, in having to decide on either the approach recommended by the committee headed by Sir Gordon Jackson or the committee headed by Professor Goldring, has effectively backed the findings of the report of the Jackson Committee to Review the Australian Overseas Aid Program in its approach to the question of private overseas students. But let me say that it is an on-balance decision between two important reports-the Goldring Committee of Review of Private Overseas Students Policy and the Jackson Committee report; both have tried to address the problems in a constructive way; both have taken an approach which is sensitive and caring; both have acknowledged the net value and gain to this country of overseas students; and both have recognised that problems of displacement of resident Australians are real. But the committees varied in the way in which they sought to overcome and resolve those problems.

It is a fact that the sensitivity in this country about overseas students has become more apparent in the last few years. We have had the rather unfortunate example of racist slogans being daubed on the walls of some campuses, particularly those campuses where overseas students have been able to win places in large numbers. I instance the University of New South Wales, a very fine campus in Sydney, where in at least a couple of faculties overseas students-on merit-have occupied many, if not most, of the places in certain courses. This has given rise to most unfortunate responses. But it has also given rise to concern from parents who find that their children cannot gain places. The problem of displacement of resident Australians creates our domestic political difficulty. If that did not happen, we would have no difficulty in taking as many private overseas students as want to come to this country. The reason that there is displacement of resident Australians is that we have defined a fixed total number of places in universities and colleges which is very difficult to expand. Because of that fixed number of places, every extra student from overseas means one less resident Australian can be included in that fixed number of positions on campus.

There are two ways in which overseas students have entered Australian universities. First, students have come under government to government arrangements. A small number of students-about 2,000 a year at the moment-are involved. Most of the students at the present time are graduate students. Very few fully funded undergraduates are coming under government to government arrangements. Another group of students, known as private overseas students, come to Australia and pay for some part of their tuition. This group, which at present numbers about 10,000, is made up of mostly undergraduate students. So there is an interesting problem in that the policies of Australian governments as they relate to arrangements we make bilaterally have resulted in largely graduate students becoming eligible for educational opportunities. That is something else that we need to examine in the light of both the Goldring and Jackson committee reports.

The Goldring Committee in its report 'Mutual Advantage', besides drawing our attention to the advantages which accrue to this country because students come here to study, also proposed what it saw as the solutions. Some of them, I think , are not solutions. As I say, the Opposition is putting forward its view in a genuine attempt to encourage the best bipartisan debate. The Goldring Committee said that about five per cent of places at present are taken up by private overseas students. It recommended that the number should be increased over time to a maximum of 10 per cent. But that would mean a doubling of the places. Unless we resolve the displacement of resident Australian students, all that will mean in the longer term is that the rather unfortunate responses we are seeing on some campuses at the present time might become more marked and difficult. The Goldring Committee recommended ways in which it thought the problem could be overcome. It thought that students should be dispersed more widely. It suggested that there should be limits on the numbers of overseas students who should be allowed to enter any one campus and that a maximum number of students should be allowed to enter any one course on any one campus. That may be a sensible suggestion. However, all it does is to disperse the number of students; it does nothing really to end the displacement problem of resident Australians. We would like a solution that fixes up all the problems and that maximises advantages and minimises problems.

The Goldring Committee also recommended that certain moneys raised from the private overseas student charge-the one that is the subject of the Bill before us-should be reapplied in the education system. At the moment the money goes into Consolidated Revenue. A few extra places possibly could be created if institutions were allowed to use the money in that way. The Goldring report is not a bad report. However, we do not think it is the better of the two.

The Jackson Committee has taken, we think, a more adventurous course. We think it has come up with a more definitive solution to this problem. The Jackson Committee in its report on overseas aid addressed the problem of how we should handle overseas students. It, too, acknowledged the advantages which accrue to Australia. It acknowledged the advantages which students bring. It acknowledged the need to keep overseas students entering this country. But the Jackson Committee concentrated more upon what it saw as ways to resolve the problem. First, it said that a large hidden subsidy of about $70m a year at the present time goes into the education of private overseas students. This amount is very easy to calculate. The students pay only about 30 per cent of the cost of their education and, therefore, to the extent of about 70 per cent of the cost, they are subsidised. The Jackson Committee suggested that this subsidy should be pulled out and reapplied in ways which one might determine by policy to enable the very best use to be made of bilateral government to government arrangements to help sponsored students. The Opposition is attracted to that suggestion. We believe that if the $70m subsidy were pulled out, made explicit and applied back to education to provide extra places on a government to government basis we would be able to take many more than the 2,000 sponsored students that we are taking at present. If there were a mixture of fully funded places and partially funded places based on any kind of needs formula we might be able to take many thousands of students on a government to government sponsored basis. If that money were applied-

Senator Kilgariff —Build more colleges.

Senator PETER BAUME —I will come to that in a moment. But if that money were applied back to the education system, the displacement of resident Australians would end. The Jackson Committee approach is attractive in that respect.

The Jackson Committee also suggested-and this is contentious-that students over and above the extra thousands who come under government to government arrangements should be allowed to come to this country if they pay their way. I find nothing wrong with that. We have a tertiary education system in Australia which is of high quality. We have educational institutions desperate and anxious to increase the number of people they are teaching. There are students in South East Asia and in our region who are desperate to be taught. At present, those students have to go to North America or England if they cannot get places here. They have to pay their way in those countries.

The Opposition believes that the Jackson approach, modified perhaps to take into account some of the problems, would end the displacement of resident Australians from our campuses. It would allow as many or more overseas students to come to this country as come already. It would allow universities and colleges to give these people the benefit of their excellent teaching. It would enable some expansion within the education sector because the full cost that would be paid by these students would probably include $100 to $125 as capital over and above the tuition cost.

Senator Kilgariff —And a tremendous amount of goodwill.

Senator PETER BAUME —And a tremendous amount of goodwill, as my colleague says.

I have used the opportunity provided by this legislation to make a few comments and to indicate the disposition of the Federal Opposition to adopt and accept the approach of Sir Gordon Jackson and his committee. We do so with no sense of disregard for what Professor Goldring and his group did. But because we saw nothing in Professor Goldring's approach that could resolve effectively the problem of the displacement of resident Australian students we have elected to support the other approach. We offer these thoughts today in the hope that we may be part of a constructive national debate aimed at expanding the whole tertiary system, maximising the number of overseas students who can take part in education in this country, maximising opportunities for our educational institutions, and making overseas students welcome in this country and able to benefit. Of course, Australians will also benefit. Having said that, I join with the Government and indicate that the Opposition will support the legislation before the Senate.