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Overseas Students in Australia

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Keynote address by Dr David Kemp MP Shadow Minister for Education

Opening reception of the inaugural Overseas Students Week organised by the Melbourne Council for Overseas Students (MELCOS)


6 April 1992


Mr Johnson, Sir Edward Dunlop, Lord Mayor, Quek Ngee Meng, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to participate in this Opening reception of the inaugural Overseas Students Week.

I would like firstly, on behalf of Dr John Hewson and all the members of the Liberal and National Party Coalition to congratulate those who took the initiative which has led to the concept of Overseas Students Week, and all those whose efforts have brought this concept to fruition


The idea of highlighting the support and appreciation of the local community for the presence of overseas students in Australia is an excellent one, and one which is very timely.

The number of overseas students in Australia has increased very greatly in recent years, so that there are now some 60,000 overseas students undertaking courses - formal and non-formal - at all levels of the Australian educational system.

This number will very likely increase much further in years ahead - indeed, we all hope it will increase for the very many reasons which have led to the inauguration of this week, about which I shall have something further to say in a moment.

The presence of overseas students in Australia is not, of course a new thing. Australians have welcomed students from other countries - and especially from countries such as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia,

and Singapore - for many decades, since the inauguration of the Colombo Plan in 1950.

The Colombo Plan aimed to contribute to the social and economic development of people and institutions in developing countries, especially those in Asia and the Pacific region, by granting them access to Australia's educational and training resources. Its aim was to

increase cultural exchange, improve the quality of Australian educational resources, and to serve Australia's interests by improving communication with and understanding of Australia. It was a program of immense benefit to all those who participated.

Under the Colombo Plan thousands of students came to Australia over the years, and many of those students came to fill places of distinction, and high public office, in their home countries on their return.

There is no doubt that the relationships developed during those years were of inestimable advantage both to Australia and to the countries from which the students came and to which they returned.

To the extent that there are warm and friendly feelings towards this country felt by many in the countries to our near north, those feelings were nurtured during those student years.

The nature of the programs under which overseas students come to study in Australia have changed greatly over the years. Students have come under sponsorship programs, on scholarships and as full fee paying students.

It is because of these changes that I believe this week is timely. In the media the overseas student programs have often been high profile in recent years, and often not for the most positive of reasons.

The change in emphasis in the overseas student programs to fee paying programs was, as we all know, accompanied by some very troubling circumstances. The unsatisfactory way in which those new programs were commenced led many students to have experiences in this country which we all regret, and many others to find that their

expectations of study in Australia were shattered.

In a few cases the press stories reflected unfavourably on the exploitation of opportunities created by those programs for people who were not genuine students to come to Australia for purposes of their own.

Because of the events in China in 1989, some tens of thousands of Chinese students found themselves stranded here, and still find themselves in an uncertain situation.

I do not refer to these events to rake over old coals. I refer to them because such events are still in the minds of many in the community, and it is of the utmost importance to convey the message that overseas

students were, overwhelmingly, the innocent victims of poorly conceived policy, that such events must never happen again, that despite these events I believe the vast majority of overseas students have had very worthwhile educational experiences and, I hope, very happy contacts with their Australian peers and with the Australian community in general.

The Australian community is, without doubt, very fortunate that so many overseas students have decided to pursue their education in this country. Overseas students contribute in a very positive and direct way to the educational experience of Australian students. They bring with them an awareness of cultures and countries different in many respects from our own, yet valuing and sharing the belief in the tremendous importance of a good education.


The horizons of vast numbers of Australian students would be so much narrower but for the contacts they have made with overseas students, and (but) for the knowledge of other ways of life and other perceptions of the world they have learnt from them.

Students from overseas deserve to be recognised as guests in this country, and as warmly welcomed guests as such.

I should say that from my own experience I have some sense of how it feels to be an overseas student in a strange country. I was a graduate student in the United States between 1968 and 1971. Contrary to my expectations I found the United States a surprisingly foreign country,

and certainly one which had little knowledge of my own country. On more than one occasion I experienced considerable difficulty in communicating, only to be asked if I would mind speaking English.

I found, nevertheless, that a great effort was made by many people acting in a voluntary capacity to make international students, as we were known, feel at home. These kindly people often had little knowledge of Australia or its culture. I remember one family which took great pleasure in showing us what they imagined was probably our first sight of an electric oven and an automatic clothes washer. Yet for all such incidents, the genuine warmth and concern which I experienced eased what could otherwise have been a lonely period of adjustment to a new society. The visits to the homes of people in the

local community were greatly looked forward to, and a welcome change from the social life of the closely knit community of ethnic Australians.

I still look back to these days as an international student in the United States with great pleasure and satisfaction, and I hope that overseas students who come to Australia are as fortunate as I was to find many opportunities to share their experiences and perceptions with people in the communities in which they find themselves.

There was in the United States I found a very acute awareness of the value of overseas students to enriching the educational environment of American students. Indeed Denis Blight, of IDP, has drawn attention to the fact that many of the top universities in the United States have

high proportions of international students by quite deliberate educational choice. This is also true in Australia, and I feel confident it will become even more so in future years.

It behoves us to recognise that the advent of full fee-paying programs in Australia has brought with it the risk that overseas students may come to feel that their only interest to Australians is as sources of revenue - as solutions to the Balance of Payments problem rather than

as welcome guests with something much more to offer the Australian community than their fees.


If that is a feeling which is common it is something deeply to be regretted, and it is essential that it be decisively refuted. I very much hope that Overseas Students Awareness Week will make a contribution to lifting in the minds of the local community all the other excellent reasons why we should welcome the growing number of overseas students in our midst.

Lest I be misunderstood on this point, let me make quite clear that we in the Liberal and National parties strongly support the full fee program. While we have been exceedingly critical of the way in which the program was introduced, we have supported and will continue to support the basic concept.

The reasons for this I would hope are obvious. This program has opened the doors to many more overseas students than could ever have come to these shores under the previous programs. It has therefore created opportunities which would otherwise not have existed for the students themselves and for Australian educational institutions.

There is no doubt that the financial contribution which overseas students have made to Australian educational institutions has been highly beneficial to those institutions and to all students.

The overseas students program has, indeed, been on of the most important pressures for innovation and creativity within Australian education in recent years.

There was initial concern at such developments. The Goldring Committee, which looked at overseas students in 1984, forecast both a drop in the numbers of overseas students if a full-fee scheme was introduced and also a corresponding decline in academic standards and the quality of education offered to Australian students.

Clearly, these concerns have been shown to be groundless.

On the first count, in the three years between 1986 and 1989, not only did the number of overseas students not fall, it in fact increased enormously.

On the second count, experience of recent years has shown that contrary to standards falling, the advent of full-fee paying students has led the way in innovation, diversity and a multiplicity of new services. According to Professor Ken McKinnon, vice-chancellor at the University of Wollongong and President of the Australian Vice­ Chancellors- Committee:


There is no denying that paying students are more demanding. I do not myself object, as these demands do focus staff attention on th e t e a c h i n g / l e a r n i n g f u n c t i o n o f t h e

university...[International students have served a useful service in pointing the way to needs of the future.

There is overwhelming evidence that market forces, allowed to operate, have triggered innovation.

Institutions, departments and individuals within departments have developed a diversity of approaches and teaching arrangements. Twinning arrangements, articulated programs, transfer agreements, cross-crediting arrangements, summer semesters, and a variety of other arrangements have come into existence in a full flowering of the fruits of diversity.

A number of other canards have been put to rest in this interesting development of the market in education.

It was a favourite criticism that the older, more established institutions would dominate the lucrative fee-paying overseas student market. Quite simply, they have not.

On the contrary, many of the smaller institutions, the regional institutions and the less well-known ones, have grasped with both hands the opportunity to build on their distinctive strengths, and they have benefited from it.

This benefit has been felt not just by the institutions themselves, but by the communities in which the institutions operate. Let me give you an example. The Wagga Wagga Campus of Charles Sturt University has attracted many overseas students, a number from Muslim

countries. As a result, Wagga Wagga has gained its first Halal butcher and there is now a regular supply of spices and herbs not normally available in the city.

There is raised from time to time the view that overseas students are taking tertiary places from young Australians, a view I hasten to add which I reject totally. In fact, the very opposite is true: that the extra revenue generated by this valuable export income serves to increase the variety of courses offered and the quality of facilities at


When it received the overseas student program last year the Industry Commission made the point that one of the most serious limitations on


our ability to expand this program was the unnecessary regulation of the provision of education to Australian students. The limitation of the places available to Australian students was a major constraint on expanding the number of places available to overseas students.

Our desire in the Liberal and National Party Coalition to see more students come to Australia from other countries is one of the reasons why we take the view that a significant deregulation of higher education institutions must sooner or later occur - for only in this way we will see a significant expansion of places for Australian students, bringing about a concomitantly greater willingness for Australian institutions to offer more places to overseas students.

Finally, I would like to commend MELCOS for its efforts not just in organising this event, but in its work in providing generic support services to overseas students.

MELCOS has maintained a human focus on what can often become an abstract political issue, and its work continues the tradition established during the Colombo Plan.

If the overseas students program is to function effectively for all concerned, then community involvement is essential, and the co­ ordinating committees of which MELCOS is one represent the only existing infrastructure to bring together the students and the community to further understanding and appreciation of one another. It is an essential element in the process.

I am sure that the work of MELCOS has done much already to heighten awareness of the overseas student program.

Thank you.