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Tuesday, 20 September 1983
Page: 1018

Mr TUCKEY(9.05) —I wish to address myself to only one issue in this legislation, an issue that strikes me as being very significant in our present economic climate. I am really talking about a different issue from that of assisted education, a matter that has been clearly covered by previous speakers in this debate. I quite agree that Australia has a responsibility to provide that type of assistance, just as it provides other forms of foreign aid. The matter I really want to raise-I sincerely hope that the Government will take this as a constructive suggestion-is that I see no reason why Australia is not in the business of exporting education, selling it as a product no different in terms of its value to our economy from any of the other products we market internationally, such as wool, minerals and manufactured goods. We have a clear ability to sell education. It seems to me remarkable that we should restrict the number of students coming here since we have decided that they should pay something for the privilege.

Australia has a very high education infrastructure. In fact, we are well aware that the local demands on that infrastructure, if anything, are declining in relative terms. We hear stories, for instance, in the tertiary sector of university people begging their new students not to flunk or drop out of a course prior to a certain date as they must have those numbers up on the board in terms of government subsidies. Of course, if they had cash paying students using their services it might not be so necessary for those same universities to try to hang on to the free students that Australia provides and who have discovered that they are probably not suited to a tertiary education.

Nevertheless, I can give the example of having to give assistance to a young Asian who just wanted to come to one of our secondary schools. I was astounded to find that he and his relatives, who were already living in Australia, needed the assistance of a member of parliament to get him to a private school in Australia when they had to pay his way. He had no admission problems. He was not under any suspicion or anything like that. It was just that the Government was paranoid about letting in another person. I take it that these people must come as students. I take it that on many occasions these students, having spent some considerable time here making friends at a rather impressionable age, are sometimes reluctant to leave. That is a separate issue. It is an issue that must be addressed by the relevant authorities.

The fact is that if Australia were to treble or quadruple the number of paying students who come to Australia, even if they did not refund 100 per cent of the overall cost and just paid to us in the first instance the direct cost of their education, surely there is a profit in it for Australia. I do not suggest that, at this stage, we go out and build additional school buildings, but in the secondary sector Australia is full of brick buildings that were built to accommodate the baby boom of a particular suburb. Of course, we now find that those buildings are underutilised because the baby boom has moved to the next suburb. It seems that, in general, Australia has yet been unable to accept the fact that it probably needs some new type of system for building schools. All these school buildings could be filled with unemployed teachers to teach people from overseas who want to come to Australia.

Recently, when I visited the Australian Maritime College in Tasmania, it was of some interest to me to see the massive infrastructure-the very minimum that could be provided to give the necessary education, according to the advice I got -quite able to handle a largely increased number of students. In fact even some overseas companies, and I think West Germany was mentioned, are prepared to pay cash to assist Pacific Island students to be taught the skills that are available in the maritime industries in Australia. Of course, the scholarship would be provided by a third nation. This seems to me to be easy money. I have no real knowledge in this field, but I wonder what the two famous British universities get out of Australians who go there. I do not think they go there for nothing. I do not know the extent to which the British Government contributes to their education, but I would imagine that in truth the amount of money paid by Australians going there is substantial. In other words, I can see from what I have read that the British and the Americans are strong in the business of selling education to other nations. The price of an air fare, the price of a tonne of wheat or the price of a manufactured item in overseas currency all look the same in our foreign currency reserves. There is good reason for Australia to get into something in which it can meet the competition, even if it has to cut the price somewhat. As I say, the Australian taxpayer has already put substantial amounts of his money into infrastructure which is generally underutilised and which could be used for this purpose. After we have encouraged these people to pay us the money, we should remember that there is no better time than the formative years when a person is gaining an education for us to make friends and create contacts in the nations with which we seek to do business and to have close association. As has been mentioned by some of my colleagues, there are very good reasons internationally for Australia to do this .

The present Government has made much of its approach to sunrise or high technology industries. Here we have a form of sunrise industry-the education industry-in place and going. We do not have to compete with low cost markets because at the moment they do not have the product. Given time, of course, they will have the product and then, as we have found in many other areas, we will be too late. I believe the Government has to rethink the policy to put restrictions on the number of students that come here. I am not saying that they should all come for free and I am not opposing too strongly what this group of students will have to pay. I am suggesting that it is quite proper for the Government to allow some people to come at a reduced price, and I support entirely the view of my colleagues who say that there is room for the Government to be generous to a given extent. But once we have reached that figure we should attract and encourage as many students as possible to Australia to be in the business of selling education. As others have said, we certainly have the capacity to do that. That is the situation as I see it.