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Thursday, 28 November 1985
Page: 2528

Senator MACKLIN(10.20) —The Government's Bill dealing with overseas aid has been a matter of some fairly extensive discussions within the community and I think there are major items in terms of the arguments that need to be put straight. The Government's basic argument is that the costs of education and the fact that overseas students make no significant contribution to these costs means that there is a need to raise each year the amount that is being charged to those students to meet those particular costs.

I believe that the Government's figuring, basically, is misleading. First, it ignores the fact that Australia benefits enormously from the education of a variety of people, particularly those from the Oceanic countries and from South East Asia, and that these people, upon return to their country, including those who are currently here, will be influential in business, the professions and politics; they are our best ambassadors for the future of this country and our future relations with our region. The Goldring report, for example, says that $A135m is spent annually by overseas students who are living in this country. That is not counted in and has not been counted in the Government's equation-that they bring money into the country. Whilst we are assiduously going around the world trying to get tourists, these people, who live here for a year, fairly obviously spend far more and contribute far more than a person who would be here for two or three weeks. It is important to look at the types of contributions they make, not only in the non-financial way to which I pointed first, but also in the direct financial way in terms of the influx of money from those countries.

Secondly, the Government grossly overestimates, I think, the actual cost of educating overseas students. Again, the Goldring report recommends 40 per cent of recurrent costs. The Committee estimated that the recurrent costs were between $5,000 and $6,500. According to the Government, the cost is $10,000 a year for normal graduate courses. One has to ask where this figure comes from, and I would be very interested if the Minister could explain how that calculation was made. On a rough calculation using effective full time student enrolments for 1985 for universities and colleges of advanced education, the figure that one comes up with for each student is about $7,000. As a percentage, 35 per cent of that is about $2,500, or about $1,000 less than the charge the Government wants to impose. Even if one wants to put in the capital and equipment costs on that-and of course, the Goldring report recommended against this-one gets only about $200 more, anyhow. So we are not going to get anywhere near the amount of money that the Government has been suggesting is the cost. Therefore, I should like to know on what basis the Government has made those estimates.

Thirdly, the Minister refers to the effects of currency fluctuations, and I think this is a very interesting matter because we have been made very much aware of the fall in value of the Australian dollar. Let us look at that fall with regard to the Hong Kong dollar. In March this year the Hong Kong dollar was worth in Australia 5.41c. On 30 October it was worth 5.49c. Yet the magnitude of the increase for those students who come from Hong Kong is 42 per cent; that is, a student from Hong Kong who enrolled in 1985 will, if this Bill is passed, have to pay 42 per cent more next year in his or her home currency. A student from Malaysia will have to pay 33 per cent more. Frankly, the Minister's use of the exchange rate figure is highly selective and highly misleading.

The Australian Democrats' position is that the education of overseas students is part of Australia's foreign aid effort. The Government itself has recognised this fact; the Opposition has recognised this fact. The subsidy for overseas students now figures as a transfer from the foreign aid budget. Unlike assistance for famine relief or for other disasters, this particular aid may not at first sight appear to be something which has an inescapable moral obligation upon it. But I suggest that this aid, indeed, is aid which goes to assist stable development in our region, and that must be incredibly important for Australia in the short, medium and long terms. By educating overseas students Australia contributes, in a very cost-efficient way, to the social and economic development of the region.

Australia has provided various types of educational opportunities and various types of training opportunities that are not available, or not widely available, in the country of origin of many of these students. Since 1940, over 200,000 students, most of them from Asia and the Pacific, have been educated in Australia and have graduated from our tertiary institutions. That must be seen by this country as a considerable contribution, a considerable effort. Before we get too carried away, let us just put that in the perspective of what other countries do. Overseas students comprise only approximately 3 per cent of the total higher education enrolments in this country. The figure for France is 13 per cent. The figure for the United Kingdom is 7 per cent.

So when we talk about our contribution, we can be proud of it, but let us keep it in the perspective of what other countries see their obligation as, other countries to which the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) constantly wishes to liken us. Those other countries are already making a much more significant contribution than we are. If the Minister claims that the reason for that is that France and the United Kingdom still have colonial ties and colonial obligations, let us have a look at another country with which we often compare ourselves. Let us have a look at Canada, for example. Canada has a 30 per cent higher rate of overseas student enrolments than Australia. Clearly then, Australia, while making a significant contribution in terms of the education of students from the Pacific regions and from Asia, still has a fair way to go to come up to the level of other countries.

I think most people listening to this debate, or at least most of those reading the report of this debate, might say that $3,550 to $4,340 is a reasonable bargain when it is compared with $10,000 per student. Frankly, I do not know where all of those students who are supposed to be willing to pay $10,000 will be coming from. For example, very few Australian families could ever afford amounts of that order. What we know from the Goldring report and from the submissions of overseas students now studying in Australia is that the majority of overseas students come from very modest backgrounds. I think that has to be accepted. Up to 60 per cent of private overseas students come from families with an annual income of less than $A15,000 per annum.

Debate interrupted.