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Thursday, 29 March 2007
Page: 53

Mr HARDGRAVE (11:50 AM) —I had not heard the member for Capricornia speak for some time. Although relying heavily on notes, she gave a very good address to the parliament today on the Education Services for Overseas Students Legislation Amendment Bill 2007, and I agree with much of what she submitted to us. Apart from the rhetorical default line of those opposite about more funding for universities, she essentially said a lot of the things I would also like to say. The reality is that this government has funded the university sector at a higher level than ever before. The reality is that there are more people studying. The reality is that there are more students coming from overseas. The reality is that there are more people involved in more courses. But you would not hear that from those opposite. For the people listening to the parliament today, it is important to state very clearly that the Labor Party has this view of, ‘Fund them, fund them, fund them and don’t ask them what they are doing with it and all will be solved.’ But the core reality of the education sector in this country, and the core fault of the education sector in this country, is that it is this supply driven sector that presumes that it has great knowledge of everything—‘Just send us money and don’t question what we do. Don’t question whether we are attached to reality or whether we are constructing or delivering courses in a way that is both time effective and in touch with the real world; just give us more money.’

I know that if those opposite are elected that will be their approach, because the academia unions are very strongly represented on the Australian Labor Party front and back benches. The crucible—particularly of the left side of Labor Party politics—the student unions, will demand a ‘no ticket, no study’ approach in Australian universities if the Leader of the Opposition and his fractured team behind him actually manage to get elected. I simply say that the university sector in this country is very strong. The glass is actually more than half full—not quite half empty, member for Capricornia. The reason that so much of universities’ income, including that of Central Queensland University—38 per cent, if I remember the member’s contribution correctly—is coming from overseas students is that the universities are attracting those students. I have been to CQU and I have seen the cultural diversity at work. There are kids from America, from parts of Europe, from Africa and from throughout Asia. Why? Because Central Queensland University is promising them an Australian qualification, which will stand them in good stead, and CQU is delivering on it. Why shouldn’t Central Queensland University get that business?

Much of what the member for Capricornia said, particularly her aspiration for all providers to be good providers, I absolutely endorse 100 per cent. I have a huge problem, particularly from my experiences as a minister in both education and immigration, with the way Australia’s education is presented overseas. My former departmental officers in Australian Education International will now be ducking for cover and thinking, ‘We know where he’s going next.’ But the bottom line is: there is something fundamentally wrong with the way Australia is positioned in the international education marketplace. Something is fundamentally wrong when you go to some parts of our near neighbourhood and they do not know about Australia; all they know about is Kangan Batman. You go to other parts, perhaps in India, and all they know about is Challenger. Perhaps if you go somewhere else, all they know about is Box Hill. That is terrific for those TAFEs—but not very terrific for Australia. It is terrific for the Western Australian education system, which registers Challenger TAFE, and it is terrific for the Victorian education system, which registers Box Hill and Kangan Batman, but it is not necessarily terrific for Australia. Nor is a qualification gained in Victoria or Western Australia automatically admissible in other parts of Australia. So we are actually selling them a falsehood. If we are not careful we run a real risk of not being able to deliver them a whole-of-Australia outcome.

You have problems not just amongst those who might set up a hospitality training centre in the backstreets of Melbourne—in Flinders Lane, as I think the member for Capricornia talked about. That organisation, I must add, is registered as a training organisation by the Victorian government, not by the Australian government. That is a point of incorrectness in the member for Capricornia’s submission. It is registered as an overseas provider, certainly, through CRICOS, the Commonwealth register, and covered by the Education Services for Overseas Students Act. But it is important to note that registered training organisations are registered state by state. There is no national registration, except for major enterprises that are responsible for training across a variety of sectors. Organisations like Qantas have rightly worked with the government through the former minister, me, to create an environment in which they are able to get a national registration recognised and working.

It is really important that we know that the need to have a true Australian qualification—not a state-by-state qualification—should be at the heart of what we do through the ESOS legislation. So I agree with the member for Capricornia. It is important how we position ourselves overseas. It is important that we actually have a single entry portal for students to come to Australia. If someone wants to be a plumber, or if they want to be a brain surgeon, they have to be able to come to an authority that says: ‘Here’s where the best courses are. Here’s where you can get that qualification. Here’s where, if you were an Australian kid, we’d want you to go.’ It should not be a case where you happen to meet somebody at an education trade show—or a trade official of DFAT. When I was in Vietnam a couple of years ago as one of the education ministers, the Austrade official said, ‘If anybody asks us about training, we just send them off to one of the state based TAFEs.’ What happens if they do not provide the best course? What happens if they do not provide you with the best set of qualifications? ‘That does not matter; we flick them off our desk.’ I do not think that is good enough.

I am very optimistic about the new Institute of Trade Skills Excellence put together by this government since the last election. Employers will be giving a star rating for the quality of training, for the quality of course outline, and for the quality of delivery approaches. It may well become a single entry portal. I raise that because it is absolutely important, as the member for Capricornia said, that this ESOS Act delivers certainty and quality. It is not just about small private providers. I remember a few years ago when my immigration department officials raided the Moreton TAFE at Mount Gravatt because they had bodgied the ESOS requirements. They were busy, as the member for Capricornia said, taking the money. The fact that people were not actually progressing their studies, let alone passing and excelling in their studies, was something that they bodgied up in order to keep the cashflow coming. There we had the Queensland TAFE people doing the sorts of things the member for Capricornia talked about. And it is wrong.

Nor can we have a situation like the one where—I will not name the city—at one of the great old universities of Australia, Chinese women students were being raped on campus and it was left to a Chinese community organisation to come to me and say, ‘We’ve got these kids coming to us needing crisis assistance.’ You cannot have these great universities saying, ‘We’ll take your money but you fend for yourself.’ If the universities value their names—and indeed, as the member for Capricornia said, Australia’s name—they have to provide not simply a place to learn but also all the necessary pastoral care and the understanding that people can get into trouble in other places. They are better off trying to build a reputation for Australia as a place where family care and concerns are met and your kids are safe to study. I think the impact of that particular series of incidents—some years ago, fortunately—has damaged our reputation in that important Chinese market.

The long-term future is not with China, because China is going to hit the wall with the numbers of people who are going to want to come to Australia to study. Already the trends are very clear that a decline in the number of students coming from China to Australia is just around the corner and that the big growth numbers are coming from places like India. And what are they in? They are in the vocational trades, which is the single biggest group of growth when it comes to Australia’s overseas education exports. The vocational trades and Australian trade training institutes need to be good at what they do and we need to have a national recognition system working properly, which this government is fighting every state government in Australia to achieve. Previously if you were a hairdresser trained in Victoria—this is the famous example—you could cut hair in New South Wales. That is not the case now, if you are under the age of 21, because of the stupid system of recognition they have in Victoria. It is absolutely important that we have consistency across the country when we try to sell our assets to other students to come from other places. There is so much more that we can and should do. I heard the Minister for Trade say the other day that the fourth biggest single item, on our trade figures, is trade in services in education. It is absolutely vital that Australia looks to underpin its quality, and that is what this legislation is very much about: underpinning the certainty and underpinning the quality and giving that guarantee to the students and particularly to their parents.

Griffith University, in my own electorate, is a great innovative university which has been around for about 35 years. It has been innovative enough to have associations right through the Asian markets, including up in the UAE in Dubai and places like that. We have even seen Emirates kids coming to learn at Griffith. We have also seen them learn how to fly at the Royal Queensland Aero Club Flight Training School and how to be part of the defence of the UAE. That sort of innovation, underpinned by certainty and quality, is indeed what the CRICOS Act is all about. We need to make sure that it is very clear to those coming from other places that it is not about the cash they bring but, as the member for Capricornia rightly acknowledged, the knowledge and experience they gain and the friendships they build. Australia can have an enormous amount of sway, I think, across this region as a result. When you start to understand Australia as being part of a region, you can also see where, if we get the quality measures right, we can take our international exports of education.

The Philippines education minister talked to me a couple of years ago about the fact that the only constant exports they have got out of the Philippines are people. That is what they have got lots of, and they export them around the world. He said, ‘If we could get the Australian system operating in the Philippines we could educate and train people based around Australian standards. You could export your expertise. You could export your standards to us and we could add that as a premium to anything we can train and teach kids in the Philippines. They might well be a ready source of employment that you may need.’ In Australia today, as you know, there is not a skills shortage; it is very much about a labour shortage. We are short on people. We have too many jobs and not enough people. Countries like the Philippines want to not only work with Australia and use our education standards to build their own particular capacity but also offer themselves as part of a regional response.

When I was in Taiwan a couple of weeks ago, the Taiwanese were saying exactly the same thing—that there are too many jobs and not enough people. They turn to countries like the Philippines to fill a lot of jobs. Yet here in Australia we still maintain—and this is mainly conspired by the trade union movement—that you cannot lose your job to an overseas person. What absolute rubbish. Are you going to shut a business because you cannot find enough people to do certain jobs that need to be done? During the Chinese New Year period, the Crown Casino in Melbourne shut down two-thirds of one of its restaurants because it did not have enough people working there. These are the sorts of labour shortages and skills shortages we have in Australia that can be addressed if we start to think about the full effect of the ESOS legislation.

The member for Capricornia criticised the RMIT just a moment ago. Let us look at the work that the RMIT has done. RMIT Vice-Chancellor Margaret Gardner was a former lecturer of mine at Griffith University.

Mr Slipper interjecting

Mr HARDGRAVE —She is not responsible, Member for Fisher. She would say that I was one of the ones who got away from her. RMIT have a campus in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, in Saigon. RMIT Vietnam offer Australian qualifications through their campus there. What is particularly important about that point is that RMIT, operating under Australian legislation as well as Vietnamese legislation, can get a four-year course through in 2½ years, because they teach 50 weeks of the year, not 36. Most universities and places of trade training operate about 36 weeks a year, Monday to Friday, 9 to 4, with 20 hours of student contact time a week. If the member for Capricornia wants to talk about efficiencies in the sector, she needs to know that in a lot of ways our universities and our trade training institutes are more like holiday camps to kids coming from other countries rather than places of efficient, effective and pressurised learning.

Kids from the countries that are coming to Australia expect to come here to work, and their parents expect them to come here to work. When they come on a student visa they are allowed to work 20 hours around our community as well as study. They are expected to work at study and to progress in order to stay here as a student. But we must realise that, unless our universities are prepared to offer on a more year-round basis the courses that kids are seeking, we are not looking as efficient as some of the universities in other countries. They still want to go to Harvard, Yale or Oxford universities, because those places are far more responsive to the marketplace demands than our Australian institutes of learning.

This act and these amendments are very important because they include an objects clause to clarify the main purpose of the ESOS Act and they deal with a number of other technical amendments. But it is really important to consider that the comfort zone has to be breached on this question of education services for overseas students. The country club approach to education has to go, and we have to see the huge public resources going into our university sector, in particular, and into our public training sector being used on a year-round basis and being made available to more students from more places as a result.

I want to make one last point on the specific provisions of this bill dealing with Christmas Island. Putting Christmas Island District Island High School within the system of CRICOS—the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students—is a welcome development. Those opposite are claiming credit for it, and if the member for Lingiari or Senator Crossin have been a party to it, well done to them.

I would also like to claim a little personal credit in that I have visited Christmas Island on a number of occasions and have been to Christmas Island District High School on one occasion. It is a great multicultural school that has kids from right across the region. There are regularly a lot of Indonesian and Indian faces. There are Islamic and Buddhist kids all working together with Christian kids. It is a very happy and very good school, and I think it is a fantastic environment to which kids from other parts of our region may care to come. It is a far more peaceful environment than people perhaps along the Indonesian Archipelago may find. But, as is often the case with any of this, it will generally be those from the wealthier parts of town who will be able to send their kids there. But I think there is an opportunity for Christmas Island to build on this and to create for themselves an enormous better-than-cottage industry.

Another point I will make about Christmas Island is that our Australian government environment people, the national parks people, who operate there and have so much responsibility for the biodiversity of Christmas Island, also introduced me, a year or so ago when I was last there, to kids who had come for their summer break from universities in Europe. I was speaking to people who had come from Paris, amongst other places, to see the biodiversity around Christmas Island and would love to have the opportunity to study there through our education system. They have not had that opportunity because of the way things have worked, and I hope that in time we will see that. Christmas Island, it is said, is like the Galapagos Islands in that it has an enormous amount of unique biodiversity that the world would be quite interested in. Frankly, as Christmas Island struggles to reconfigure its economy away from phosphate mining to other activities, I think education has a huge role to play in its long-term economic viability.

I congratulate the departmental officers who have been a party to constructing this legislation. I congratulate Minister Bishop on listening to me and, indeed, those from the Northern Territory who have parliamentary responsibility for Christmas Island in this matter. I will end where I began, and say that this act and these amendments are very important, but this act has so much more potential in the years to come. I do not think we work as hard as we can to get the dollars we should. There is great economic value as well as great societal value and, dare I say it, great security value that comes from more students studying in this country. (Time expired)