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Thursday, 29 March 2007
Page: 66

Mr SNOWDON (12:45 PM) —Firstly, let me acknowledge the contribution of the member for Kooyong, and before him, on our side of the House, the member for Capricornia and the member for Reid. I thought the member for Capricornia’s speech was very important in outlining some of the major issues and flaws that have existed in the treatment of overseas students in this country—and perhaps, in some instances, in their behaviour—and the way Australian providers, whether tertiary institutions or others, have gone about their business.

The amendments go to the heart of a great debate in this country about higher education and about the need for the university sector to look offshore for overseas students to make up revenue which should otherwise, perhaps, have come from other sources—to wit, the government. It is clear that because of cuts made in the higher education sector, and the lack of investment in the sector as a result of those cuts, many in the higher education sector rely on revenue from international student fees when they might otherwise not. The second part of the amendment asks us to look at the lack of action taken in response to recent examples of questionable activity in the overseas student area of the university and vocational education and training sectors.

Madam Deputy Speaker, this bill is important in a number of aspects but particularly for what it does for the Indian Ocean territories of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. It is about that that I want to speak in large part today. But I do want to pick up on what the member for Kooyong said about the importance of the new section 4A that sets out the principal objects of the ESOS Act:

(a) to provide financial and tuition assurance to overseas students for courses for which they have paid; and

(b) to protect and enhance Australia’s reputation for quality education and training services; and

(c) to complement Australia’s migration laws by ensuring providers collect and report information relevant to the administration of the law relating to student visas.

When did you come to the chair, Mr Deputy Speaker Kerr, because I have been calling you Madam Deputy Speaker for a couple of moments? I note that you are not her!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. DJC Kerr)—Either that or I am cross-dressing!

Mr SNOWDON —You may be cross-dressing, but you have changed your hairstyle! It is a pleasure to have you here.

I want to go, in particular, to the new proposed section 4B in the amendments, which extends the ESOS Act to Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The extension of the operation of the act to Christmas Island was recommended as part of the evaluation of the ESOS Act by Phillips KPA. This is to enable the Christmas Island District High School to be registered on CRICOS for the purposes of delivering courses to overseas students, subject to the Western Australian government committing to the placement of overseas students in appropriate tuition in years 11 and 12 if those years are discontinued by the high school. By making Christmas Island District High School eligible for CRICOS registration, the viability of years 11 and 12 at the school is enhanced, and it will also be of great assistance to the island’s economy. I will come to the detail of that in a moment.

While it does apply to Christmas Island because of the desire of the Christmas Island community to get access, it is important to understand that section 4B of the amendments simply ensures that this act applies to the territory of Christmas Island and the territory of the Cocos (Keeling) Island as if:

(a) a reference in a provision of this Act to a State included a reference to the Territory of Christmas Island or the Territory of Cocos (Keeling) Islands; and

(b) a reference in a provision of this Act to a designated authority in relation to a State included a reference to the Territories Minister.

That is important because it means that there is the potential for others with an interest in providing these services to be engaged, either on Christmas Island or the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

But, at the outset, it needs to be comprehended that the thrust for this has come from the Christmas Island community. I have been visiting the Christmas Island community for 20 years this year. For much of that time, people have been looking at how they could make use of the resources of the island community to expand the economic activities of the island but also take advantage of the significant geographical advantages that Christmas Island has, being so close to our South-East Asian neighbours.

For those of us who are not aware, Christmas Island is roughly a 3½-hour flight and 3,500 kilometres or thereabouts from Perth to the north-north-west of Perth and about the same distance west of Darwin. By jet, it is approximately a 40-minute flight from Jakarta, so it is very close to our neighbours, and, significantly, flights into Christmas Island emanate currently from either Perth or Singapore. The island community see much of their business as coming from the north, even though they are clearly being serviced from the Australian mainland.

Over the years, on a number of occasions that I can recall when Labor was in government, I received submissions from people who were interested in looking at the possibility of setting up a college on Christmas Island for the purpose of providing an educational opportunity for overseas students in English. That has enormous future potential for the community. Clearly, the community in the high school on Christmas Island has seen that working together and putting their not inconsiderable weight behind the high school getting access to this ability to be able to take overseas students is an important part of the future planning for the development of the island community.

Madam Deputy Speaker—Mr Deputy Speaker: I should know by looking at you—this is a really terrific place. For those of us who have had the privilege of visiting there—I have been there on at least 20 or 30 occasions and I have many friends on the island —it is a significantly different place to any other part of Australia. It is a relatively small population, but around 65 to 75 per cent of that population speak Chinese as their first language; they have come from Singapore or Malaysia in past years and in previous generations to settle on Christmas Island. A significant proportion speak Malay as their first language. Then there are mainlanders—I really should not describe them as mainlanders—who have English as their first language and were born there but some of whom migrated from the mainland. It is a very interesting cultural mix; it is very different from most parts of Australia because of its isolation and the fact that these cultures are living together so vibrantly and are fostering a very good example to all of us as to how we should live together.

There has been much discussion over many years to ensure that the ESOS Act is applicable to the Christmas Island District High School, because the school will then be able to meet the requirements of the National Code of Practice for Registration Authorities and Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students. I understand that the Western Australian Department of Education and Training is sending its own departmental people to the island next month to set up the international student unit within the school. It should be pointed out that the community is very supportive of the high school, the provider of the service, and it is not the view at the moment that it wants to support any other provider—although the act of course does not prevent this.

Primary and secondary education on the island, as you, Mr Deputy Speaker, having been part of the Islands in the sun report, and those of us with memories in this place would know—I am sure I will have to tell most other members of the House—is provided by a service delivery agreement with the Western Australian Department of Education and Training. This delivery agreement in fact could be with any organisation. It need not be just with the Western Australian Department of Education and Training; it could be with the Northern Territory Department of Employment, Education and Training—and, indeed, they have looked at those options over the years.

Like many schools in the electorate that I live in, the provision of secondary education on Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands generates much discussion, and for many years it just was not available; it has only been available for about three years. There are always questions, which are raised by education administrators, about economies of scale, about the diversity of the courses that can be provided and about the range of options in subject choices et cetera. Parents are often faced with the dilemma of whether to support the local high school or to opt to send their children to the mainland to complete their secondary education. The reasons for this choice are many, but it places significant burdens on those families and the community—not the least of which is the financial burden that a mainland education places on island families.

Since years 11 and 12 have been provided on Christmas Island—I need here to commend the work of the professional educators on the island for what they have done—a small cohort of students have been trailblazers in establishing this senior component of the school, and it is now possible to complete year 12 on the island. Although some students continue to opt to complete their education on the mainland, they have a choice and there is clearly no obligation on them to complete years 11 and 12 on the island. But the staff and parents on Christmas Island do need to be congratulated on their support of post compulsory school education in the community.

Christmas Island District High School is a focus of activity on the island. As I said, it has strong Islamic and Chinese foundations. It is noteworthy that this year on Christmas Island there is an exchange student from mainland China. That student’s arrival on the island was facilitated by the previous Chinese Ambassador to Australia, Madam Fu. Madam Fu travelled to the island, built up a relationship with the island community then worked with the island community and the Western Australian Department of Education and Training to ensure that a Chinese student could come to the island to help teach the language.

That is important when you think of where potential students of this school might come from and whether the school should provide language services for overseas students. We know that there are 15,000 students from Indonesia and 10,000 students from Singapore in this country. There are 80,000 students from mainland China. Each of these countries has close connections with the Christmas Island community. That is exemplified by the relationship which has been developed with mainland China, the Republic of China, through the work that the embassy here and Madam Fu did with the island community. I am certain that this opportunity will be taken up by the island community. They will see this as a way to stabilise and ensure the future of their year 11 and 12, but other opportunities will undoubtedly emerge. One can see how opportunities might emerge to provide other training for overseas students.

I am sure that on Christmas Island, above any financial incentive to attract overseas students, there is a firm commitment from all islanders to maintain and improve the quality and range of education services for the benefit of the entire community. If that were not the case, I would find it difficult to support these proposals. We are talking about enhancing the education opportunities for the island’s students and providing a quality education and language program for overseas students. I have mentioned already the number of overseas students currently in this country who have come from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and China. On the figures that I have for 2004-05, the economic benefits of international education to Australia are estimated to be around $7.5 billion, of which $6.9 billion was from spending by onshore students. So there is significant economic potential to be garnered from the development of this facility on Christmas Island.

I think the geographical and cultural advantages that Christmas Island has for potential overseas students are obvious. It seems to me that, with this amendment bill today, there is no limit to what might happen in terms of not only enhancing opportunities for overseas students on Christmas Island but, significantly, also providing a base for the further development of education opportunities for the island community. I think this is a very important piece of legislation for that reason. I want to comment again on the contribution of the member for Capricornia, who outlined in great detail flaws in the treatment of overseas students previously. She raised significant questions as to how the government is going to ensure that the principal objects of the act are carried through.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. DJC Kerr)—I thank the honourable member for Lingiari, but might I suggest that he have his eyesight tested if he discerns any manner of resemblance between me and the honourable member for Mackellar.

Mr Snowdon —With respect, Mr Deputy Speaker Kerr, not in behavioural traits.