HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [6.28 pm]: I rise because I wanted to make a few comments about the revelations (on the ABC’s Four Corners program, which ran a segment on Monday called “Cash Cows”) that arose in relation to Murdoch University. I would like to begin by saying that I am a proud Murdochian graduate. I have two degrees from Murdoch University. Many years ago I was the guild president out at Murdoch and I was on the Murdoch senate and, indeed, on the Murdoch Academic Council. I have a vested interest in this wonderful institution and I am very keen to ensure that the integrity of my university is upheld.
I was very concerned about the allegations that came out of the ABC’s Four Corners program. They were not new to me. I was approached by a number of academics earlier in the year, who raised their concerns with me, knowing my long history with Murdoch University. They expressed their deep concern about the way that the university may be handling the issue of some international students. I want to be very clear that I am fully aware that the issue of standards around international students is very much a federal government responsibility. That is where that oversight responsibility lies. It has been devolved down to individual universities to administer that, and that is clearly where we might need to look at whether there needs to be more stringent capacity for the federal government to oversight. I am aware that that is very much a federal government responsibility.
I also note that the push to have more international students within our federally funded university sector has come about over many, many years because of diminishing funds being made available to our tertiary sector. That is why so much pressure is being put on our individual universities to try to find alternative sources of income. This has meant that universities often have to extend beyond their core business of providing education and undertaking research in this country by establishing aged-care facilities and retirement villages as a source of income, as we did when I was on the Murdoch University senate and we looked at using the land to establish St Ives Murdoch as a source of ongoing revenue for the university to continue operation, and by establishing things like schools on site. We used to have Murdoch College, which has folded and is now part of the wonderful high-rise St George’s Anglican Grammar School in the middle of our city. These are the sorts of pressures that have come to bear on our universities as a result of diminished funding.
I also acknowledge how important it is that we get the issue of international students right. International students can and do play a wonderful role within our federally funded universities. Firstly, it is an opportunity for citizens of other countries to take advantage of our wonderful, topnotch tertiary education sector. I think it is a wonderful opportunity for Australia to ensure that our high-quality education standards can be taken advantage of by others. I also think we benefit greatly when we have international students who are well trained within our universities; they are effectively able to operate as ambassadors for the quality of our universities when they go back to their own countries and work. That is an extraordinary opportunity. I see it as more than recognising that it has become a necessary revenue source for universities; I see it as a genuine way in which to promote the quality of our universities, which goes to the core of ensuring that our standards are being upheld. I do not know whether the allegations that have been raised within Murdoch University are true. I had already written to the vice-chancellor of Murdoch University and received a response to indicate that Murdoch University did not share those concerns. I recognise, though, that many academic staff members of high standing and high integrity have put themselves out on a limb to raise these concerns.
I also note that it is not just Murdoch University that is on the receiving end of these allegations. Since the Four Corners episode, a number of universities around the country also have been identified as potentially having the same issues. It is absolutely essential that we have a federal government that is able to step up to make sure that these concerns are dealt with appropriately. We need to deal with these concerns on a number of levels. Firstly, we do not want to end up hurting the very market that we are trying to tap into for international students, because who on earth would want to come here if they thought that the quality of any degree would be diminished? Secondly, we do not want to diminish the quality of the degrees of those of us who have done the hard yards and worked really hard at university to get those degrees. I do not appreciate the possibility that my degrees might be diminished as a result of this. Thirdly—this is critical—we need to look after our international students when they come here. It is important that we remember that their wellbeing matters. It is important that we ensure that international students feel welcome, safe and supported and can perform to the academic standards that they expect to be able to perform to and also that we expect that they are able to perform to.
Obviously, there will be an election in a couple of weeks. We do not know whether we will have a new government, but I hope that whoever governs at the federal level takes up this issue with the seriousness it deserves. In the meantime, I certainly hope that the Murdoch University senate looks at this issue very seriously and takes a very close look at what may be happening, and certainly does not attempt to sweep it under the carpet. It is also absolutely critical that those people who have spoken up and have effectively taken on the role of whistleblowers are not persecuted and pursued and that their jobs are not put in jeopardy for legitimately putting forward concerns about the university that they cherish and that I care about too.