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Friday, 29 November 1985
Page: 2592

Senator MACKLIN(12.24) —Before the Senate rose last night we were discussing the Overseas Students Charge Amendment Bill. This Bill proposes increases in the level of charges made on overseas students at our tertiary institutions. As I was rehearsing last night, there are, I believe, a number of problems with the Government's presentation of its argument. I spoke about the benefits which will accrue and which have accrued in the past to Australia from providing education to students from the Oceanic area, and from South East Asia in particular. I refered to the fact that it had been estimated that $135m is spent annually by overseas students while living in Australia. I also raised the question of the effectiveness of the Government's calculations and sought from the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) the basis of its calculations of the cost to the Government of educating individual overseas students.

I also raised the problem of the fluctuations in currency exchange rates. The Minister has been relying upon those fluctuations in some of her public statements to suggest that this Bill is an offsetting operation and, hence, since almost all currencies have moved up against the Australian dollar, Australia has become a cheaper place. As I pointed out, for example with regard to the Hong Kong dollar, next year students from Hong Kong will be required to pay 42 per cent more in their home currency unless our dollar goes through the floor. Presumably, the Minister for Education is not saying that the value of the dollar will go down. I am quite sure that she is saying that our dollar will go up, and we certainly all hope it does. If it does go up--

Senator Walters —The Minister is not saying anything.

Senator MACKLIN —The Minister is talking to somebody else at the moment. Presumably, the argument that the Minister is using now will be used next year against a rising Australian dollar. Hence, students from overseas countries can expect to pay more in their home currencies than they are at the moment because our dollar will be appreciating against their currencies-at least, that is what the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) is telling us and I presume that the Minister for Education, who is present in the chamber, is saying the same thing. I do not think that that argument can be used. I also pointed out that the Malaysian students would be paying some 33 per cent more.

Our position has been consistent in this debate. We had such debates fairly constantly under the previous Fraser Government and have had them fairly constantly under the Hawke Government. We have had them at least once a year, when we consider the education package. On these occasions we say that providing for overseas students is now recognised as being part of our foreign aid and that the contribution we make is vitally important.

In my concluding remarks last night I dealt with the percentage of overseas students that Australia has in the higher education facilities. I compared the situation in two other countries-France and Great Britain-with the situation in Australia. I pointed out that those countries have a far higher percentage than we do of students in their higher education institutions. Even a place like Canada has a 30 per cent higher rate of overseas student enrolment than Australia.

I wish to make some concluding points with regard to costs to add to the points I made last night. I certainly would be interested in the Minister's response to our costings on this. From all the material that I have been able to put together it would seem that the average overseas student comes from a family of very modest means. I am not saying that every student comes from such a family, because obviously that is not the case. There are students from extremely wealthy backgrounds who come to Australia and partake of our educational institutions. But by and large the students who come here from overseas are from relatively modest backgrounds. They are looking at paying between $3,500 and $4,300 in round terms, which is a very costly operation. Indeed, very few Australian families would be able to pay that. I suggest to the Minister that very few families from overseas countries would be able to afford that level of commitment. It would seem on the figures that about 60 per cent of private overseas students come from families with an annual income of less than $A15,000. Yet a student enrolling in 1985 in a typical three-year course would be looking at an increase of something like 100 per cent in two years. That is a difficult burden to impose on a family. To families earning less than $A15,000 a year it would be a massive and crippling impost and, I suggest, an impost which would not be able to be sustained.

The argument we have put rests on the principle that once a student has been enrolled he or she should be liable to pay no more than the amount paid in the first year. In other words it would be a predictable commitment and the student and the student's family, in making that commitment, would then be able to maintain it. We do not want to lose students in whom we have already invested a considerable amount of money before they have completed their courses and satisfactorily graduated. Under our proposal the Government would still be able to increase the charges to overseas students each year but that increase would apply only to newly-enrolling students. So the charges can be adjusted for inflation, for movements in the exchange rate and for any other reason that the Government deems reasonable and necessary. I know that the proposal we have put forward is not the ideal solution, but in the circumstances I think it is the best possible solution to a difficult problem.