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Overseas education crucial to universities

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International education in Australia began as a post-war overseas aid scheme, with students from the Asia-Pacific region sponsored to study here under the Colombo Program. But by 1987, these students were paying about 45 per cent of the average commercial fees.

Education minister Susan Ryan wanted the payments maintained at that level for the next three years, saying the Overseas Student Charge had risen annually since 1980. “There have been rises of the order of 40 per cent in each of the last two years,” Senator Ryan noted in a March 1987 submission.

She advocated “certainty and predictability” in the charge, partly because of the effect “controversy surrounding the charge has on Australia’s image as an attractive destination”.

Senator Ryan said the charge had reached a “practical ceiling” because it was almost as high as the full fees paid on some commercial courses. “To increase the current level of OSC would bring into question the whole rationale for the subsidised program.”

A draft press release included in the submission lauded the overseas student program’s benefits in “reinforcing understanding and goodwill and in more firmly establishing Australia as a friendly neighbour in the Asia-Pacific”.

But other departments were hostile to the proposal. “It is not apparent that the benefits of the program justify such a large subsidy to overseas students,” says a summary of Treasury’s views.

“Increases in the OSC to date do not appear to have deterred applications,” Treasury noted, adding that it would agree to more enrolments “subject to full fees being levied.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs argued for annual increases in the charge until “full cost recovery” was achieved, while the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet said fixing future years’ charges constituted “an inflexible constraint on future budgetary planning”.

The Expenditure Review Committee said the charge should be lifted to 55 per cent in 1988, 65 per cent in 1989 and 75 per cent in 1990. But this was overridden by Cabinet, which settled on 55 per cent for all three years.

Cabinet also accepted Senator Ryan’s recommendation that the annual intake quota be set at 3500 students “provided that aggregate student numbers do not in future years significantly exceed the current level”.

Last year there were over 500,000 foreign students in Australia. (THE AUSTRALIAN)

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