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Thursday, 11 October 2012
Page: 8002

Senator EDWARDS (South Australia) (13:47): Thank you for facilitating me being able to rise to speak on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Student Visas) Bill 2012. In 2010 the Australian government commissioned the Knight review to evaluate the student visa program to enhance the quality, integrity and competitiveness of Australia's international education sector. The final report of the Knight review contained 41 recommendations, which the Australian government accepted. We have heard about the Knight review. Both Senator Cash and Senator Mason have referred to that report in relatively glowing terms. They having been involved in this sector much longer than I have and I accept the fact that this is good work that has been conducted.

Recommendation 24 suggests the government should act to abolish the automatic cancellation of student visas and replace that regime with a system in which information conveyed by student course variations is used as one factor to be taken into account in a more targeted and strategic analysis of noncompliance. The bill amends the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000—the education act—and the Migration Act 1958 and obviously, in good governance, recommendation 24 is now to be implemented. If the bill is successful, it means it is going to be a far better regime in which to manage these visas in the future.

It is important that we have the correct policy settings that encourage and promote this important export sector. According to Universities Australia it is worth over $17 billion in export dollars and is responsible for the creation of over 120,000 FTE jobs in Australia. As a South Australian senator, this sector is one of the big success stories of my home state's economy. The Australian Bureau of Statistics states that the international education industry provided $925 million to the South Australian economy in 2010-11—nearly $1 billion of a contribution to a state that is in serious need of revenue increases.

Adelaide continues to attract record numbers of international students, with more than 31,000 choosing Adelaide as their study destination in 2011. International education generates more than 6,500 local jobs and is the state's largest service sector export and the fourth-largest overall export behind wine, copper and wheat. International students pay full fees for all courses and are not subsidised by government.

The University of Adelaide—very dear to my heart—is a member of the prestigious Group of Eight universities that consistently ranks among the best in the Asia-Pacific region. In May 2006 Carnegie Mellon University opened its Asia-Pacific education base in Adelaide. University College London is offering masters degrees specific to the mining sector from its new Adelaide campus, which opened in 2010. It is therefore critical that we, in a policy sense, do what we can to support, promote and grow this sector which is so important to my home state and to Australia on the whole.

Much is made of the rise of Asia and the Asian Century—how Australia can be the food bowl for the growing middle class and, just as importantly, is providing education to millions of young people who are on our doorstep. I have only just left the reception for the Prime Minister of Singapore who, in reference to Australia, reflected fondly on the Colombo Plan, which has provided his country with so many graduates who have taken on very senior public service roles in his country.

In the next decade or so, China is likely to grow from the second largest to the largest economy in the world, while India will rise from the ninth largest to the third largest. With this growth in their economies, their middle class is likely to swell by a factor of three out to 2030 and will make up 16 per cent of the world's middle class. The Chinese recognise the importance of a good tertiary education, and the number of institutions in China has increased from 598 in 1978 to 1,867 in 2006. Similarly, the proportion of the Chinese population enrolled in tertiary study increased from 3.4 per cent to 22 per cent between 1990 and 2008—a remarkable increase in both institutional availability and the number of people filling them. Meanwhile, India will need to build some 1,000 universities to meet the education demands of its growing number of young people. Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand have similar stories to tell.

China is already our largest source country, with over 40,000 students coming to Australia in 2011. Around 5,000 Malaysian and Indian students came in the same year. The changing demographics and conditions I have just described represent an enormous opportunity for this country—an opportunity which we must not squander. Australia has held a competitive advantage in this area for some time. We have safe, liveable cities to accommodate international students and a university sector that is already geared towards international students. Throughout the years, Australia has built up a rich history of exchange with these and many other countries around the world.

Under this government we have seen international student enrolments decline. Enrolments are expected to reach a low of 485,000 next year. This will see the sector generate $14 billion instead of $18 billion and shed 27,000 jobs. This represents a 23 per cent drop in the number of students between 2009 and 2013, or a 22 per cent drop in the value of education as an export. That is alarming in anybody's language. I hope the minister is cognisant of these figures and this decline. We have to be vigilant and ensure that this does not continue. There has been broad support for the proposal to abolish the automatic cancellation of student visas upon breach of a prescribed visa. However, the requirement for registered providers to notify the Department of Immigration and Citizenship within 14 days of any changes to an accepted student's contact or other prescribed details has caused some concern.

The Senate inquiry into this bill highlighted two main issues. The concerns of submitters and witnesses focussed on two issues, including the compliance costs. We heard Senator Macdonald talk about the creeping need for applications to be blown out. I think in his case it represented 36 pages in applications for courses and to attend university. For people where English is their second language, that is an unnecessary complication.

To address this, firstly we must look to modify the Provider Registration and International Students Management System to allow for the effective and secure upload of data from the databases of registered providers. Secondly, until recommendation 1 is implemented and we can be sure that information is securely uploaded, registered providers should only be required to notify the Department of Immigration and Citizenship of students' up-to-date contact information at the commencement of each semester when students re-enrol in their approved courses or upon any variation or change to their enrolled course. We do not want layers of bureaucracy. In fact, that is not what we should be looking to do. Thirdly, on the proviso that the first two recommendations are implemented, the bill should be passed.

The coalition welcomes any opportunity to reduce bureaucracy and minimise the amount of cumbersome paperwork that students and others have to fill out in order to come to Australia. We want to make it as easy and as simple as possible for international students to live and study in Australia. As I have highlighted, this is an important industry, not only to my home state but also to the nation as a whole. I thank the Deputy President for his indulgence in letting me speak this afternoon.