Federal Parliament - Education Services for Overseas Students (Registration Charges) Amendment Bill 2021

09 August 2021

Dr ALYI join with other members of the House in expressing my delight at seeing you in the chair, Deputy Speaker Dick. I reiterate some of the points that have been made about Labor's support for the Education Services for Overseas Students (Registration Charges) Amendment Bill 2021 and cognate bills, which aim to streamline cost-recovery arrangements for the regulation of education providers who provide services to international students.

I would like to commend the member for Sydney for bringing forward the bill, the member for Moreton for the amendment that he has moved and speakers on both sides who have contributed thus far to the debate on this bill. I found the contribution by the member for Curtin to be particularly refreshing. It is refreshing to see an individual who has the level of experience in the higher education sector that she brings to this parliament contributing to this kind of debate and bringing that experience here. It is refreshing, particularly, to hear her acknowledgement of the value of Australia's education system—not just its economic value but its value in terms of its diplomatic efforts and cultural connections with other countries—and that this doesn't affect just our university students but a range of providers to international students. As somebody who worked in ELICOS, taught ELICOS and worked as an administrator at a university, as a teacher at a university and as a researcher and professor at universities, I'm proud to stand up and speak in defence of all of those providers within the higher education sector who provide education services to international students.

As I mentioned, Labor supports these bills, because Labor will always support bills that make it easier and cheaper for students to access education and for providers to deliver quality education to Australian students. These bills, though they make minor and consequential amendments arising from the registration charges bill, do contribute in some way to a broader shift to full cost-recovery for the regulation of higher education providers. Labor has, however, proceeded with caution, particularly around the fact that most of the details to be set in these bills will be set through regulation, which is something that members on this side have spoken against because that does not lend itself to the kind of transparency that Australians expect and the accountability that Australians should be getting from their government.

So, whilst we're not opposed to cost recovery in principle if it's well thought out, and we will not oppose these bills, we will be raising those issues, the ways in which these bills fall short and the regulation of the provisions set in these bills.

I'll have more to say about universities, particularly the devastating impact on universities not just through COVID but through this government's actions, both active and passive, where it has either actively attacked the university sector or—

DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Wallace): Order! It being 1.30, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.

Debate suspended from 13:30 to 16:10

Dr ALY: In continuation, I mentioned earlier that we support these bills and the reasons why we support them, as well as the reservations that we have around the setting of most of the detail of these bills through regulation. I mentioned then that I would also continue, in my contribution today, to speak specifically about higher education and universities.

A couple of weeks ago—in fact, the Friday before the last parliamentary sitting—I attended the 30th anniversary of Edith Cowan University. I have three degrees from Edith Cowan University, and my brother gently reminded me that he also graduated from Edith Cowan University, so I must say that it is the Aly family university of choice. It is such a feat for the university to celebrate 30 years in the same year that we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Edith Cowan being elected to the parliament of Western Australia. As part of their celebrations, I attended a gala concert at the Perth Concert Hall that was put on by students of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts at Edith Cowan University. It was such an amazing event. It was a fantastic event. The closing piece of that evening was a spectacular performance put together by a WA Academy of Performing Arts student. The title of the piece was Transformation. It reminded me of how my own life, as well as the lives of many of the young people I meet, has been transformed by education.

I want to congratulate Edith Cowan University not just on that event but on reaching 30 years and really growing to the extent that they have. But juxtaposed against that wonderful celebration of 30 years was an announcement made just before that by the University of Western Australia that they were effectively cutting their social sciences offerings, meaning they would no longer be offering anthropology or sociology, among other social sciences, either as a degree or as a research area. The result of that will not just be felt in the 16 or so full-time jobs to be lost at that university. I was moved by the number of people who contacted me about this: academics, of course, especially those who come from the humanities; former graduates, of course, who understand the value of a humanities degree; students who were studying anthropology and sociology; and would-be students—young people who aspire to study a degree in the humanities and have a clear talent and passion for it.

In response to that, I wrote an opinion piece that was published in the West Australian. In that opinion piece I drew attention to this government's eight-year-long undermining of universities and, in particular, the humanities. There has been absolute destruction of higher education—our universities as well as our TAFEs—and, specifically, ideological shadow boxing against the humanities. I was shocked when I found out that the former Minister for Education had taken it upon himself to veto ARC grants in the humanities, placing himself above a panel of discipline-specific experts—many of whom are professors, many of whom have done decades of research and earned international reputations in their own right—and placing himself above a college of experts, who deemed those grants worthy of funding, to veto those grants.

Those opposite seem to think that anthropologists and sociologists engage in navel-gazing activities where they clamour to write dissertations and study frivolous things like the migratory patterns of Argentinian ants or the relevance of the apostrophe in modern-day Tajikistan. That's not the case at all. Anthropologists and sociologists contribute so much. Their work is absolutely central, and has been central, to the management of pandemics. They played a vital role in the management of the Ebola virus outbreak. They understand human behaviour and human responses to pandemics, to government messaging and to policy.

It would be remiss of me to not stand and speak on these bills that we support, because they make it easier, because they make education more accessible, specifically for our overseas students, and because they give some relief to those education providers. But we stand here and support these bills against a backdrop of a continuous eight-year attack on universities—one that has seen $3 billion in revenue lost. By the end of this year there will be $18 billion lost from our economy, from our education sector. Education has gone from being a $40 billion export to being a $22 billion export.

It's true that we have always been faced with harsh competition from like nations such as the UK, Canada and the US in attracting overseas students to study in Australia. For as long as I can remember, from my days of teaching ELICOS and attracting students to come to Australia to study English as a pathway to a university degree in Australia, we've grappled with these questions about how we make Australia a competitive nation for overseas students, and we have proven our place in the world landscape as a destination of choice for international students. We currently have 200,000 students stuck overseas with little or no hope of getting here and completing their degrees because we don't have proper, fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities that would enable that.

I notice that many speakers who have contributed here have talked about universities pivoting to online learning. When I was teaching I always taught online as well as face to face, and I know that you cannot completely replace face-to-face learning with online delivery, particularly for some courses where students need to be in a lab. You also cannot deliver quality teaching without quality research; you simply cannot. If we want to grow and develop the minds of the future that will go on and contribute to the industries of the future, we need to make sure that our teaching at universities is up to date with industry trends and world trends. You simply cannot expect our world-class education system to remain world class if you cut research, if you undermine ARC grants or if you take away ARC grants that were justly assessed by a college of experts because you don't like the title of the grant and you have no understanding of the content of that particular research program.

I will end on a point that was made by previous speakers. This point really demonstrates the government's contempt for higher education, particularly for universities. It's demonstrated not just in their undermining of the humanities. It's demonstrated not just in their ideological battle against the social sciences and the humanities. It's demonstrated not just in their cuts to universities. It's demonstrated not just in their failure to ensure quarantine facilities are there so that overseas students can return to universities and it can be back to business as usual. If there is anything that demonstrates the government's contempt for higher education and for universities it is the fact that they changed the rules for JobKeeper three times so universities could not get it. It is the fact that, since the pandemic began, they have presided over 18,000 job losses in one sector alone—and not in just any sector but in one of our largest export sectors, a sector in which Australia has enjoyed a very proud and strong international reputation. So, while we support these bills, we will continue to hold the government to account for their absolutely disgraceful undermining of the university sector.