FRAN KELLY: One of Australia’s biggest export earners is the international education sector. Foreign students contribute more than $18 billion dollars every year to our economy, but the sector is shrinking. Undergraduates from overseas turned off by the high cost of studying in Australia, the tough visa conditions, which have got tougher in the last couple of years and those 2009 attacks on those Indian students in Melbourne in particular. The Federal Government has responded to all this, by setting up a top level advisory panel chaired by business leader, Michael Chaney. The group will hold its first meeting today.
Tertiary Education Minister, Chris Evans, is in our parliament house studio. He is also the Minister for Workplace Relations, and soon he will announce the long awaited details of the government’s review into the Fair Work Act.
Senator Evans, welcome back to breakfast.
CHRIS EVANS: My pleasure, Fran.
KELLY: Now, Minister, we will come to the IR Review in a moment, but first to the international education panel chaired by Michael Chaney. Overseas students are big business, and we are losing market share pretty rapidly over the last couple of years. What is the major threat to the sector?
EVANS: Well, I don’t think we are losing market share. We had a slight dip in numbers when we had a perfect storm of the concern about the treatment of Indian students, the high cost of the Australian dollar - a whole range of things came together to give the market a bit of a hit, but the numbers have been quite strong this year, and it has not been nearly as bad as people have predicted.
KELLY: So, the figures that I looked at show that immigration figures recorded a 16 per cent drop in student visas in 2008-09, and then another drop again in 09-10. Has that bounced back?
EVANS: There has been a bit of a bounce back, but equally we saw a bit of change in behaviour. But what effectively happened is the rorts being run largely out of India for people coming for low quality courses where shut down. That occurred when I was Immigration Minister, and that section of the market has contracted largely, and in my view that is a good thing, because they weren’t coming for educational purposes. But the quality end of the market has remained much stronger than people predicted, and what today’s announcement is about is trying to make sure we treat what is our third largest export earner as an industry. It has grown rapidly in the last twenty years. It has been tremendously successful for Australia. It is one of our key engagements with Asia, but we have never treated it like an industry, and what I have asked Michael Chaney and a very senior group of people to do is to look at a strategy for the development of international education as an industry.
KELLY: And the resilience of that sector – I mean, as you say, the third largest export earner for this country - but the world is changing, countries like India and China, they are becoming wealthier, they are building their own universities. Is that going to make it harder for a country like Australia to attract foreign students?
EVANS: Look, it is a very competitive market, and I mean, China now is attempting to attract international students of its own, but the reality is both China and India will have difficulty training all their people. You know, they have millions of people looking for tertiary education, and those numbers are increasing, and we have a huge opportunities there to continue to grow our market. We also have the advantage that we have a quality product, good quality universities, and a long history in this industry. So, I still think it is still a tremendous opportunity for Australia. We have done a lot in the last couple of years to clean up some of the problems we had; the Baird Review, the legislation we put through – this is now about looking forward, about taking a serious look at how we continue to grow what is a really vital industry for Australia.
KELLY: And vital for our universities too. I mean, I think Macquarie University, to take one, was dependent on international students for almost 30 per cent of its revenue. Now, Michael Chaney has previously called for the reintroduction of full fees for overseas students. Is that a good idea? Is that something you will consider?
EVANS: The overseas students provide full fees. I think Mr Chaney’s expressed views about domestic fees. But what I’ve asked him to do is focus on the international education market and how we grow that. I think you mentioned Macquarie University, I think that’s a good example. Part of what we’ve got to do is have a sustainable industry. We’ve got 600,000 students in Australia. We’re a country of 23 million. We need to work out how to sustain the industry. As you know, we had huge problems with issues relating to housing and transport for overseas students. The government has interactions with international students and the sector across a range of portfolios and what we want to do is focus in on how we treat it as an industry, how we grow the industry, how we make sure it remains a quality university sector and that we continue to interact positively with Asia.
KELLY: In any industry branding is key, and in a speech last night Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne said Australia must catapult at least eight of our universities into the international top 50 in the university rankings. Is that a goal that you share?
EVANS: Well look, I think it was more important – what he said was effectively that he wanted to concentrate research funding on those eight universities. I think that would be disastrous for the Australian university sector.
EVANS: Well, 60-odd per cent of our top ranked research occurs in other than those eight universities, and if you take research out of those other universities and our regional universities, that’ll seriously undermine the reputation, the standing of those universities,their capacity to attract staff, and quite frankly will dumb down our innovation and research efforts.
So, I think it’s a very stupid call and I think it’s very dangerous.
KELLY: What about Christopher Pyne’s commitment for a Coalition government, should they win office, to establish a new university focus on minerals and resources that focuses almost exclusively on research in that area. Is that a good idea?
EVANS: Well, there’s a lot going on in that sphere already, and as part of the CHOGM process the University of Western Australia announced further development of engaging with developing nations for educating mineral experts and disciplines.
But I mean, the Howard government had 10, 11 years when they defunded universities, where universities struggled to survive, and the Opposition have now got to find $80 billion or $90 billion of cuts. I don’t think anyone believes there’s going to be new investment in universities, if the Opposition came to government.
KELLY: Okay. Minister, can we turn to workplace relations now. The review of the Fair Work Act is due to start soon, I think January 1 is the date tipped, which is not long away now. Business is on the record recently as being concerned that this review could lead to a return to compulsory arbitration – the sort of arbitration landscape that dominated in the 70s and 80s. Can you ensure employers that won’t be the case?
EVANS: What I can assure them is that it’ll be an independent review as required under the Act. The review is to look at how the Act has worked in terms of meeting its objectives. It will be independent and it will be evidence-based. We’ve asked for the review to provide us with an assessment of the evidence of the operation of the Act.
There’s a lot of rhetoric in this field, there’s a lot of ideology, there’s a lot of false claims. What I want to do is have an independent review examine the evidence of how the Act’s working, report to Government, and then we’ll make decisions about how we respond once we’ve got that report.
KELLY: Just on the issue of arbitration, at the ALP conference on the weekend the Labor Party changed its platform to include a requirement that all enterprise agreements provide for last resort arbitration. That’s what the unions want. The employers say that’s winding back the clock and will slow productivity even further.
EVANS: Well, what that reflects is a model clause that’s already in the regulations, which allows for dispute resolution procedures to have an arbitration process at the end of any conciliation or mediation if you can’t resolve the dispute. That’s a model clause, that’s already available.
KELLY: But not automatically and not for every industry. That’s only if it affects the national economy – there’s caveats around that.
EVANS: No, no, I’m talking about the dispute resolution capacities, which can go into enterprise agreements, but whether people choose to put them into agreements is a decision for them. The Qantas dispute did focus on the issues you raise, which comes to the question about when one can intervene as a third party or as one of the parties in dispute and seek arbitration. I think people are rightly focused on that, as to whether or not a dispute has to get to that sort of stage – a lock out of all employees – before arbitration can be required, if the parties seem in capable of resolving the dispute. So, I think that is an issue that’s in the Australian public’s mind, and it one I’ve said is something the Fair Work Review ought to look at because...
KELLY: It’s what employers are nervous of. The fact of making it easier to get to compulsory arbitration, they say that means Unions will just put in ambit claims and it will be impossible to negotiate and everything will end up in forced arbitration.
EVANS: Well Fran, without pre-judging it, I think you could argue pretty strongly that Qantas brought about the lock out to get to arbitration. This was an employer which wanted to get to arbitration, and their way of doing that was locking out their employees. So, I think what we know about the need for arbitration, is those who are winning a dispute don’t want it and those who are losing a dispute do and despite people’s public positioning, whenever they’re losing a dispute, be it a Union or an employer, they come and see me pleading for arbitration or some sort of intervention. So, I think there’s a lot of rhetoric around these issues – what the review will allow us to do is have an evidence-based discussion about whether changes are required to the Fair Work Act.
KELLY: Do you think that will result in much change? Employers are on the record recently saying they’re not getting listened to in equal weight.
EVANS: Well Fran, I don’t know how much change will come. We’ll have to wait for the review. But I do want to make it very clear that Labor is committed to the principles in the Fair Work Act. We support the approach taken in the Act. We’re not going back to WorkChoices, we’re not going back to individual agreements and we are about fairness at work. So we’re happy to review the Act and see how it’s operating, in terms of it meeting its objectives. But we’re not reversing our commitment to fairness at work and there will be no return to WorkChoices and individual agreements, which is what some people are calling for.
KELLY: Chris Evans, thank you very much for joining us.
EVANS: My pleasure, Fran.
KELLY: Chris Evans is the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations. He’s also the Leader of the Government in the Senate.