17 June 2020

 I am pleased to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020 and to support the amendments moved by the member for Sydney. Education exports are an integral pillar of our economy, worth over $37 billion to the Australian economy in 2018-19. Australian exports dependent on international travel, such as tourism and education, have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 crisis due to the global recession and the ongoing travel restrictions aimed at flattening the COVID curve. International education in particular bore the brunt of the coronavirus outbreak, with the primary market of China cut off from Australia universities since 1 February, but also important markets like India, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and all through our region.

International education, including universities, vocational education and English language schools are Australia's largest services export industry and fourth-largest export sector overall. The Australian Bureau of Statistics trade in goods and services figures for April this year show the catastrophic impact COVID-19 has had on Australia's education exports. Tourism related service credits, including the education exports, fell $730 million, or 18 per cent, in a month. If you look at the data, you can see that the international education sector has fallen off a cliff.

The university sector alone is anticipating revenue losses of between $10 billion and $19 billion from 2020 to 2023. Universities Australia has estimated that there will be around 21,000 jobs lost over the next six months. This will continue into 2021 if international students are not able to return at this point. Yet the government refuses to extend JobKeeper to the tertiary education sector. This government went out of its way to exclude universities from the JobKeeper package. Of course, not all universities were excluded. Some private universities got some assistance. Torrens University, Bond University, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Divinity were all granted an exemption and are able to access the JobKeeper program, but there was nothing for Australia's public universities, nothing for struggling universities in regional Australia or universities based in regional centres such as the University of New England, Central Queensland University, Southern Cross University and other unis such as La Trobe and Charles Sturt University with campuses all throughout the regions. There is nothing for those universities. In fact, there is nothing in the COVID response of this government for those public institutions which educate Australians as well as provide the means for our largest services export industry. There was some assistance, a very minor amount—$100 million—in this context of regulatory relief to be shared between the universities and the vocational education sector, but that, of course, will go nowhere to cover the shortfall being experienced by universities in this pandemic. All the government has done in substance to help is to simply confirm existing pre-COVID funding arrangements. It's like the Clayton's COVID response: the higher education package you want to announce when you don't really want to help the Australian university sector at all. And it's going to cost jobs. It's already costing jobs. The member for Sydney already mentioned this morning that 14,000 jobs in regional areas are going because of the inability of this government to get over its ideological bent against Australian universities.

We hear in this place, and outside of this place, constant refrains for increased local manufacturing capacity and Australian-made goods. The community at large want more things made in this country, as do I, as do people in this chamber. Of course, Labor will always continue to advocate for increased local manufacturing capacity that complements and builds upon our comparative advantages—in particular, high-end manufacturing through investment in research and development—instead of specific industry subsidies. However, any such R&D will depend on the strong higher education sector that this government is determined to see crash. University research, as many know, is heavily subsidised by international student revenue and will face significant cuts without government intervention. This government, as I've said and as we all know, has refused to intervene.

On top of this, the government's ham-fisted approach to our trading relationship with China has placed further pressure on our higher education export sector into the future. Letting rogue backbenchers speak without any measure and lead the debate in this place on China shows a shocking abrogation of their responsibility to lead by the Prime Minister and the foreign affairs minister.

The Prime Minister also took time out to tell international students to go home. This is going to have lasting reputational damage for Australian institutions. We had, at our feet, a chance to place higher education in Australia—and that export industry—as being the safest place in the world in the global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. But international students around the world know that this Australian government will not hesitate to abandon them in a crisis. Such an erosion of trust is unforgivable. The Victorian and New South Wales governments have stepped up to help international students, but the lack of support here in Australia offered by our federal government to international students is sorely lacking compared to what national governments in Canada and the UK have undertaken to do. They are our competitors in a very competitive international education market.

These countries helped these income-generating international students, but this Australian government left international students homeless and hungry. It's a disgrace—and I don't like to use this word very much—and it's 'un-Australian' as well for international students who are stuck here. There are no planes; they can't simply go home. The nations they come from have restrictions as well; it's not as simple as just telling people to go home or to rack off, but that's what this government has done to the people who provide our largest services export industry with billions of dollars into our national economy.

Despite what the Chinese ministry might say, Australia is a safe place for international students, and we hope that international students come back. But, quite frankly, we can't count on that when, in a crisis, this mob simply tells international students to go home when there are no means to do that. I would call upon the government to immediately act to repair the damage they've done to our relationship with the international students and those communities overseas which want to send their children to study here in due course, when we've recovered from the pandemic and it's safe to do so. But a lot of work will need to be done on recovering our international reputation in this area.

I've spoken a bit in the last few months about the need for diversification in our export markets. Quite frankly, a lot of people have spoken about that. This is important, in particular, in international education. Earlier this month, of course, we saw the spectacle of the Prime Minister finally discovering India. Just at the point when our government would want to think about taking our relationship with India far more seriously than cricket, curries and Commonwealth, all we got was the Prime Minister making 'Scomosas' to patronise the Indian community with. Australia's 700,000-strong Indian-Australian diaspora must have been rolling their eyes in embarrassment; likewise the business community, with its strong Indian links.

The real shame of this is that the government was presented with a blueprint for serious economic engagement with India two years ago. Two years ago—that's when the distinguished former head of DFAT, Peter Varghese, presented his report, An India economic strategy to 2035, to the government. This report has since then been gathering dust, and only a handful of the 90 recommendations have been acted upon. Peter Varghese found that no single market over the coming decades offered more opportunities for Australia than India, and he stressed that a stronger productive Australia-India relationship would have education as the flagship of that bilateral relationship. It is a massive economy and will only become bigger in coming decades. We know that the demand is already there, that Indian parents are eager to send their children overseas for a quality education and that many are looking to Australia.

I have a few quotes here from the Varghese report. I don't think the government has read it, so I'm happy to read some of the recommendations into Hansard. As Peter Varghese has said:

There is no sector with greater promise for Australia in India than education.

Australia's future growth and prosperity will be driven by our ability to generate and attract the 'best and brightest'.

Getting education right is also critical for India to maximise the potential of its demographic dividend.

India cannot meet the demand for education on its own.

As a world-class education provider, Australia is well placed to partner with India across secondary, university and vocational sectors.

And what have we seen? Very little.

And while I'm on the subject of international education and diversifying our markets, I want to make a bit of reflection on our relationship with our nearest neighbour, if you're from Western Australia: Indonesia. This week, I wrote to the Minister for Education and the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment to express my grave concern that the Australian Consortium for 'In-Country' Indonesian Studies, known as ACICIS, may soon be forced to close unless it receives urgent financial assistance. In my former role at the University of Western Australia and as chief operating officer of the Perth USAsia Centre, I saw firsthand the immensely valuable work of ACICIS in providing an accessible pathway for Australian students to study in Indonesia. ACICIS is also the backbone of the New Colombo Plan, as it sends Australian students to Indonesia.

Former foreign minister of this country the Hon. Julie Bishop would be absolutely appalled that the government is failing to help with the operating costs of ACICIS. ACICIS gets funding from the federal government, but that funding cannot be used for operating costs. It can only be used to facilitate the exchange of students, and, of course, that money does not became available at this time, because no-one is able to travel. So, in the meantime, this excellent organisation, which is a consortium of more than 30 Australian universities and which has run on a shoestring for 25 years, continues to run on a shoestring, yet this government will not help it make ends meet in this time of crisis.

More than 3½ thousand students have studied in Indonesia through the consortium since 1995. ACICIS alumni now hold significant positions in government, the academy and business. It would be astounding and it would be a scandal if this government failed to support this organisation just weeks before the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement is set to come into force. It will do our relationship with Indonesia a terrible disservice to not support this important organisation in its time of need.

I have, of course, asked the Minister for Education to ensure that ACICIS receives the financial supports it needs. I have not yet received a response. I hope I will, and I hope ACICIS will receive a response to the request it has made for support from this government. You can hardly believe we could get to this position in a country where a government has expended enormous effort on its relationship with Indonesia—not before time, I might add. It was a Labor government that started the negotiations and the preparations for the IA-CEPA. We had some concerns, but we fully supported that agreement going through this parliament and being ratified as part of that important diversification of our markets.

We know the value of student exchange. The students of today are the leaders of tomorrow. Australian students going to Indonesia today will have a greater understanding of Indonesian culture, its education systems and its governmental systems. Likewise, we want Indonesian students to come to Australia, when they can, to learn more about us. This is a vibrant democracy. It's a massive democracy to our north. It will be one of the four largest economies in the world by 2050, alongside India, yet this government won't put forward some few hundred thousand dollars to help an organisation such as ACICIS, which does tremendous work and has operated for 25 years. I call on this government to support ACICIS in its time of need for the advancement of Australian international education and our relationship with this important trading partner.