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Tuesday, 28 June 1994
Page: 2121

Senator BELL (6.15 p.m.) —The report in front of us is evidence, as Senator Tierney said, of this chamber's capacity to initiate and to then facilitate the resolution of a matter which has been seen to be difficult to resolve for many years. In fact, it was one of the first issues with which I became involved in this place when I arrived. It concerns an industry which has the capacity to be a leading export earner for Australia, if it is not already recognised as such.

  It takes very little time for the dollars and for the value of this industry to mount up when we consider that each student who comes from overseas to study in Australia for a semester unit is paying on average $5,000 to study for that semester. Added to that is the consumption of goods and services that the resident student would then be involved in.

  Senator Tierney mentioned that over a short time the value to Australia of this industry—effectively it is an export industry; even though it takes place in Australia, the money is received from overseas, and that makes it equivalent to an export industry—has risen from some $800 million to $1.5 billion.

  It is also important to recognise that during that same time frame that Senator Tierney referred to, the sector of that industry with which this report is mainly concerned—in other words, the private providers of education services for overseas students—had declined in value from $200 million to $120 million. There were several reasons for this decline. I will not go into them piece by piece because that was done in the committee, which was able to determine the reasons for the decline and seek a solution to that.

  A characteristic of the conditions that applied to those providers at the time is that it was a confusion: the rules, the regulations, the factors that applied to this sector of the industry were indeterminate and in fact very difficult for an enterprise to come to grips with. It is amazing to me that so many of the enterprises attempting to take part in this market have actually survived to this day. We see a group of very strong enterprises having survived in an area where, in many cases, the administrators, those administering regulations, were themselves confused about which regulations applied to whom, when, and under what circumstances.

  Rather than having a firm and relevant framework, this industry was operating very much in a whirlpool. Through the work of this committee, the department and the providers of education services themselves, we now have the opportunity to establish such a framework. This committee has persisted in insisting that the industry of private providers be organised and be able to represent itself in a unified way, a characteristic which was not necessarily present in the beginning phases of the industry. It can now do that to such an extent that its self-regulation can be effective, worth while and lead to stability.

  The Minister for Employment, Education and Training (Mr Crean) has recognised this. That can be seen in the letter from the minister which Senator Tierney tabled. I think it is that recognition of the persistence of the committee which has brought us to a point which I am most optimistic about. I am optimistic that the industry has the capacity to regulate itself in a way which will satisfy the minister that those who are members of professional associations or the associations of the industry have the capacity to arrive at a suitable tuition assurance scheme and also to conduct the industry with such a degree of supervision that practices which are not beneficial to the students are eliminated.

  As just foreshadowed by Senator Tierney, I intend to delay the consideration of my disallowance motion, a motion which in some ways has forced this matter to a head. It would be entirely unproductive if it were considered at the intended moment. Because of the work of the committee, the department needs the opportunity to properly conclude its negotiations with the industry itself. I am optimistic that that opportunity will be taken, but we will see when we resume our sitting in August.

  At this moment we should recognise the patience and considerable contribution that was made by the chair in this matter. It has not been at all easy to see an end to this matter, and it has required the repetition of many aspects of work. Senator Zakharov should be congratulated for her patience in this matter. It has brought us to a position where we have a report which is supported by all the parties involved. Honourable senators would know that achieving that in any committee is not an easy matter for this Senate, but it has been done on this occasion. The report's value as a comprehensive and completely supported report is great because that has contributed considerably to the resolve of each party. The industry, the department and perhaps even the minister could not dispute the fact that Senator Zakharov's being able to facilitate a unified report means that the resolve of those involved has been somewhat stronger than it might have been.

  We also need to recognise the contribution that has been made by the secretariat, particularly Mr Brenton Holmes, who has had the imaginative capacity to determine the right word to fit the somewhat vague nuances that have often been necessary to explain just what was going on. In fact, all members of the secretariat have been helpful in that regard.

  I would like to congratulate all other members of the committee. Senator Tierney has put a lot of work into this. Other members of the committee have worked hard to ensure that we reached this point. I am optimistic about the future. I have said that six times, but I am optimistic. I just hope that the next time we hear of this business there is a complete resolution of the problems we have had over many years.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.