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Friday, 22 March 1985
Page: 634

Senator MACKLIN(9.28) - The Government has put down its statement on overseas student policy. Obviously it had a great deal of difficulty wrestling with two reports which while comprehensive in their coverage did have significant differences of outcomes. The Government has opted by and large for the policy approach of the Committee of Review of Private Overseas Student Policy.

I think that probably most of the difficulties I have relate to the brevity of the statement that was made by the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan). It may be that at some later stage the Minister will be able to expand on a number of the points that I wish to raise. I shall raise those difficulties as I go through the Minister's statement. Firstly, the Government says that there will be an annual ceiling on overseas students in all categories. This is very confusing and not at all clear. Does the annual ceiling in all categories also apply to that group of overseas students who pay the full cost of their education? If it does, I think that further problems flow from that. In many ways this would seem to be an odd situation if the Government's other funding policies are not improved. These problems may have to be looked at.

Senator Peter Baume —It actually says that those places will be above and beyond those places subsidised by the Australian Government.

Senator MACKLIN —It says that those places will be subsidised by the Government.

Senator Peter Baume —It is a question of which ones are subsidised.

Senator MACKLIN —I presume that the subsidy places are those mentioned in points three and five of the Minister's statement. I am not sure whether 'all categories' mentioned in point one refers to points three and five or to points three, five and eight. The next point of the Minister's statement refers to the percentage of the total number that may be overseas students and states that up to 20 per cent may be enrolled in any course. The problem there is immediately obvious. Almost every course in every tertiary institution in Australia has a quota. Is this 20 per cent 20 per cent of the quota or 20 per cent within the quota which currently exists within the tertiary institutions?

Senator Ryan —Twenty per cent of the numbers in the faculty.

Senator MACKLIN —In other words, it is 20 per cent within the quota which is currently set within the tertiary institutions. That goes a long way to substantiating the point that Senator Baume made. It would still be seen as an exclusion because it takes 20 per cent of those places which could be available for Australian citizens.

Senator Peter Baume —It does not end the central problem.

Senator MACKLIN —It does not end the central political problem if that is what the 20 per cent refers to. The Minister, by way of interjection, suggests that that is what it is. If it were 20 per cent on top of the quota we may have removed the problem. I think the political problem still exists and is as stark as it was before this policy was put down. I do not think this policy has changed it one iota. That is extremely disappointing for exactly the same reason Senator Baume expressed and that is that the incipient racism we have found on campuses in Australia will simply continue because people will perceive that Australian citizens are being displaced for overseas citizens. That has never been the intention of any government in Australia. I think it is a pity that such perceptions will be allowed to remain because the Government's policy is drawn up in this fashion. That clarifies those points in a rather disappointing way.

Point three of the Minister's statement raises further problems-problems that Senator Baume alluded to-one of which is the overall cost for Australian students compared with the $4,500 allocated in the last Budget for the 15,000 so-called new places which the Government had announced. The Minister, by the way of interjection when Senator Baume was speaking, maintained that that amount was not only the recurrent amount but also the slice-up of the capital amount. If one takes, for example, the rough figures on medical students I do not see how one can say on any accounting operation that the capital amount will be almost twice as much as the recurrent amount. It is not; it is never anywhere near that figure. Hence there is a fair disparity between what is said to be a full cost for an overseas student and what is said to be a full cost for an Australian student. I do not see how the two figures that the Government has put in different places gel. They cannot gel. We are talking about two different total costs for an identical product. It does not make any sense. Either we are shortchanging one group or-I think this is much more likely because I think the costs mentioned in the Minister's statement are close to the mark-we are diddling the institutions. I think that most institutions know that they are being shortchanged to a dramatic extent and this increase in charges to overseas students will merely reinforce that view conclusively-through the Government's own document. The Government now has no leg to stand on in view of the fact that new places in tertiary institutions were woefully underfunded in the last Budget.

Point four of the Minister's statement refers to the establishment of an overseas student office as a one-stop shop. I think most people who have dealt with overseas students would welcome that move with open arms. The problem has always been to try to find out where overseas students have had to go to seek information. It is a welcomed advance to establish an overseas student office, particularly as a one-stop shop. I certainly hope that the Minister will be able to impress on some of her colleagues that that type of advance which she has suggested in her statement could well be applied in a number of other areas, particularly in the immigration area.

However, I have a couple of problems with this matter. I am not quite sure, again because of the paucity of the statement, what precisely the Overseas Student Office is about to take over. I am not sure how in some areas it will necessarily be seen to be more efficient. It might be that at some later stage the Minister for Education will be able to spell out what services the Overseas Student Office will offer which are not already being provided, in particular with regard to the testing of overseas students. Will the Government be sending people overseas for the testing of students? This is currently done, of course, outside the government sphere. How many people will be sent and will they be flying backwards and forwards? Presumably, this exercise is also an exercise in trying to be financially viable. I am sure Senator Walsh has made some contribution to that proposition. At the moment I for one cannot see how the costs, having put them into the Government's hands, will be any less to government than they currently are. It may be that the Government has other views. It does say in the later paragraph that the new procedures for implementing these decisions are still being worked out. Hence it may be an unfair criticism that I am raising at this time.

Point four, relating to the overseas students sponsored by the Australian Government, I think follows what has become an agreed basis within the Australian Parliament on what our obligations are. The Australian Democrats have been maintaining for a long time that we should be substantially increasing our overseas aid component for a whole range of reasons, not the least of which is that our relationships with other parts of the world, particularly the Pacific and South East Asian regions, depend very much on goodwill. Hopefully, in the future they will depend on goodwill more than on the operation of military treaties.

With regard to that matter I raise a point which I think is often missed in the general public debate. Overseas students do not just take from Australia; they give in two very important ways. Firstly, they actually broaden the base of our tertiary institutions in terms of cultural input and understanding. We are a relatively homogeneous nation, cut off, with no land boundaries to any other country. It has been only by the influx of overseas students that many of our young people have come into close working contact with people who are not settling in Australia but who are here for a specific purpose and will return to their country. I think the contribution overseas students make to our campuses in that regard is very large and ought to be acknowledged.

Secondly, of course, one can see now at all levels of government those overseas students who undertake, and have in the past undertaken, studies in Australia. When one goes overseas one almost invariably meets people who have studied in this country and who are in medium and senior positions within government. They speak with fond memories of their student days in this country and of the welcome given to them by the Australian people. To my mind, that is a far better way of expanding our international understanding. It is a far better way of maintaining peace in the world than is spending any amount of dollars on the military, in establishing hardware and in other types of operations. Education is done at a base level of person to person. The people from other countries who are educated in Australia and who are operating at various levels in overseas governments provide us with linkages and considerable advantages not only, of course, in international understanding but also in trade and co-operation in so many other ways. For example, the drawing up of treaties such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and bilateral trade arrangments, are enhanced extraordinarily by having people who understand the Australian ethos and our people.

Point five follows the line that I have taken consistently, and that is that the Minister for Foreign Affairs has the overall control in that area. I think that that is one very important way of showing that those students are part of our aid to other countries and not part of the educational allocation.

I turn to point eight. Here I think there are some difficulties. The first I raise is whether point one refers to point eight or whether these students, who are outside the quota of students to be subsidised by the Government, are part of the overall, absolute numbers which are suggested in point one. If they are not, I wish to raise this scenario: As our tertiary institutions increasingly become starved of funds, they will move to increase the intake of students who are paying 100 per cent for their courses. That may be no problem, but it depends very much on the ambiguity of a couple of sentences further on--

Senator Peter Baume —They need to be above the quota, don't they?

Senator MACKLIN —Yes, they will be above the subsidised quota, but we do not know what that is really because of the brevity of the statement. But here is the problem. It says here:

. . . institutions will be able to offer places at full cost in courses, separate from their normal degree and diploma courses, which are specifically designed for overseas students.

Could an engineering course specifically designed for overseas students be introduced?

Senator Ryan —It is more likely to be an intensive English course or something like that.

Senator MACKLIN —Yes, but one could just as well establish a course especially for engineering. Perhaps I could give an example. Agricultural work is highly specific in certain countries-the Philippines, for example.

Senator Peter Baume —How long would it take WAITE to design a course?

Senator MACKLIN —This is what I am raising. Any go-ahead university or tertiary institution will be on to this like a flash if the wording is to remain as vague as 'specifically designed for overseas students'. It would be very simple to do that. For example, a course might be in a foreign language, yet it would still be an engineering course. In other words, it all depends on two things: Whether point one refers to point eight, and whether we accept the explanation provided by way of interjection by the Minister-and that is that we would probably be looking only at English speaking courses and courses of that kind. If that is the case the problem does not arise.

There are no principles enunciated here and that is fair enough, but I would be very interested to hear from the Minister what the principal base is that would exclude tertiary institutions from offering full costed places to overseas students above the quotas that are currently provided.

Senator Ryan —It is provided for in the statement. There will be a possibility for such courses to be introduced above and beyond the subsidised places.

Senator MACKLIN —There will, but as I was just saying, we are not quite sure what these courses are because it is stated that they will be separate from normal degree and diploma courses. I cannot see why they have to be separate. Let us say that an institution has a good course that is relevant to a Pacific country. For example, a number of the new republics in the Pacific are certainly looking for administrators. If there are some people there who want to buy our educational services, why not allow them to do so at full cost?

Senator Ryan —They certainly cannot afford it. We subsidise them completely.

Senator MACKLIN —I know that. I am trying to draw apart the two groups of students. There are those to whom we have an obligation and whom we fund totally; we totally support that. But there are other people in almost every one of those underdeveloped countries who have plenty of money and who would be quite happy to come here and buy our educational services. Why not allow it?

Senator Peter Baume —This is precisely the Jackson approach to recognise our obligations.

Senator MACKLIN —Yes, and I cannot see any argument against it. Senator Peter Baume, by sliding into one of his sentences, was being provocative and I am not quite sure whether he will buy it from the Minister. But he did buy into the tertiary fees issue and suggested that he wanted to make a link on this. I do not see the principles involved in that as being in any way comparable. I am talking about funding by foreign citizens as distinct from the obligation that this country has in terms of the education of its own citizens, but I understand the point Senator Peter Baume raised.

I welcome the statement, although it may not seem from the sorts of points I have made that I am all that happy with it. I believe this is a difficult area that the Government has had to deal with. If one looks at this document in detail, it has to be seen as a half-way house. It is only on the way to a policy. This grouping will not work. I do not expect the Minister thinks it will. It is probably a softening up blow for, as is outlined in point three, rapidly increasing overseas student charges, possibly to 100 per cent and, as is outlined in point five, drawing a sharp distinction between aid students and others. I hope the Minister will look at point two because, after hearing her interjection, I am now very worried that if 20 per cent of the courses are going to be allocated within the quotas which are currently established we will have exactly the same problem on campuses as we have had in the last few years.

Senator Ryan —No, many faculties have more than 20 per cent at the moment.

Senator MACKLIN —I know they do, but even if the 20 per cent is still within those quotas within tertiary institutions it will be perceived as taking places of Australian citizens. That is where the problem has been and that is where it will continue to be as a result of this policy. I see no reason why we need do it that way. It is provocative and it does not help. I think those very tenuous and difficult racial relations that we have seen in the last few years in Australia could boil over at any point. I hope that the Minister will reconsider point 2 and is able to move that 10 and 20 per cent outside the institutional quotas.