I rise to support the Education Services for Overseas Students Legislation Amendment Bill 2010. This bill is an important one because it will strengthen Australia’s reputation as an international student destination. It will allow the Commonwealth to take action more immediately; it will strengthen registration requirements; and it will expand the role of the Commonwealth Ombudsman in this area. I will say more on these in a moment.
Before doing so, let me emphasise the importance of international education to Australia. As Senator Mason noted in the Senate, this is not a boutique issue for Australia. Overseas students are of vital importance to our universities and to the Australian economy and provide many cultural and foreign policy benefits to us also. Members would know the importance of overseas students to our universities. Many universities now rely on overseas students for a large proportion of their enrolments and of their income. Overseas students also enrich the universities themselves for other Australian students. They are welcomed on campus and are a vital part of our university life.
Our economy is also greatly enhanced by having international students. The full size and impact on our economy is often not known, but in fact we are one of the largest providers of education services for overseas students in the world. There are 2.8 million tertiary students who are studying abroad across the world, and we receive about 7.5 per cent of those students. Last year those students contributed $19.1 billion in export earnings for the country. This was almost doubled from five years earlier, when it was $10.1 billion. This makes it our largest services export industry, well ahead of others such as personal travel services, which are at $12.1 billion, and professional and management consulting services at $3.1 billion. It also makes it our fourth largest export earner overall after coal, iron ore and now gold. An Access Economics report into the beneficial effects of international students estimates that overseas students contributed over 122,000 jobs to the Australian economy: over 30,000 directly in teaching jobs and the rest due to the flow-on effects from having those students here. In addition, we know that, for every two overseas students that we have present, we get a friend or relative who visits Australia, contributing a further $315 million to the Australian economy. We are fully aware of the mining sector and the impacts which it has on the Australian economy, but we should be equally aware of the international student market and the impact which it has also on our economy and how important it is for us.
But it is more than just dollars and cents that international students contribute to Australia. They add many cultural and social dimensions to our country as well. Importantly, they come here from many countries and build very strong relationships in Australia. Students come from China, from India, from Malaysia, from the Republic of Korea, from Vietnam, from Indonesia and from many other countries—all of these are critical trading partners and critical relationships for us to enhance. Through our having students from those countries here spending many years in the country, forging deep relationships with other Australians, indeed when they go back to their home country they have a greater appreciation of what Australia is like and are more likely to develop a stronger relationship with other Australians and with Australia as a nation in the long term. We know that many Singaporean students, Malaysian students and other students who have been here have since gone back and entered into very senior positions in their home country; many of them have gone back and entered into their home parliaments and are members of their home cabinets. Their experience in Australia and their understanding fully what Australian life is like from their experience here is invaluable.
I was lucky enough myself to have studied at an overseas university. I studied at Harvard University for a couple of years. Not only did I learn a lot from the course which I studied there but it gave me a much greater appreciation for the American way of life and American institutions by virtue of being there for a couple of years.
While most members of the House would agree on how important the international student market is to our nation, there are many significant challenges on the horizon. Firstly, there is significantly increased competition. With our traditional sources of students from China, Hong Kong and Singapore, those countries are rapidly developing high-quality education providers in their own countries, many of which teach in English. The United Kingdom is becoming more aggressive in seeking international students, in part because the government in the United Kingdom has cut the public funding to their universities and hence the universities themselves are reaching out to the international student market as a source of revenue. The United States, of course, continues to be an outstanding destination for international students to attend.
In addition to the increasing competition we have the rising Australian dollar, which of course makes it more expensive for international students to come to Australia as opposed to other countries. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we have had a string of private provider collapses, particularly in Melbourne, and high-profile incidences of violence being directed against overseas students. This has shaken the confidence in the market and has damaged the reputation of the international student market generally.
As a result of these challenges in the sector, there are reports of dramatic drops in enrolments at our universities and higher education providers across Australia. The official statistics show that the growth slowed considerably from 2008-09 through to 2009-10. So we have work to do to continue to strengthen our nation as a destination, to make our universities and TAFEs as attractive as possible and to address some of the issues that have shaken the confidence in the sector. This bill is aimed at strengthening the sector and addressing some of those issues that I have outlined, particularly the collapse of private providers.
The measures in this bill come out of the Baird report into the international student market. This bill implements many of Mr Baird’s recommendations and builds on the original ESOS Act 2000. The main provisions in the bill include, firstly, the establishment of an overseas student ombudsman within the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman; secondly, it gives the Commonwealth power to impose financial penalties for a range of activities, including unethical recruitment practices; thirdly, it strengthens the registration criteria for providers of education services; and, fourthly, it introduces a new strategy for managing risk in the private education industry. These are important measures, and the coalition broadly supports them. But, as Senator Mason has indicated and as the member for Forrest, who spoke before me, indicated, we will be watching closely for how these measures are actually implemented on the ground. It is one thing to have good intentions—and they are good intentions—articulated in the bill, but it is quite another to implement those intentions well.
This is a critical industry for Australia. We need to get it right. We need to be doing everything we can to support the growth of this industry, not only because of the important contribution that international students make to our economy but also because of the important contribution they make in so many other aspects of Australian life. The bill will go some way to addressing some of the pressing issues which are facing the international student market, and hopefully it will support and enhance this vital sector in Australia in the years to come. Thank you very much.