(1.56pm 8 November 2011, Parliament House Sydney)
International students bring vitality and diversity to our city. The networks and friendships they form during their time here strengthens bonds between Australia and their homelandâ€”vital for cooperative action to tackle challenges like global warming and poverty as well as establishing future business and government relationships. As Lord Mayor I welcome the international students to Sydney. Last year the international education sector contributed $6.5 billion to the economy and created 34,000 jobs. It is estimated that every two international students create one job. Nearly 70 per cent are from China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Republic of Korea and Hong Kong. The three major inner-city universities have over 30,000 international students and over 4,000 international students are enrolled in post-secondary colleges and the TAFE Sydney Institute. However, competition is increasing and the latest data shows a drop in new international student numbers. We must address students' needs if we are to continue to be a destination of choice for overseas study.
The Commonwealth Government has made positive changes to international student visas and improved consumer regulation of education providers following the Strategic Review of Student Visa Programs. However, further action is needed. International student representative groups, support services, the Council of Australian Governments International Students Strategy for Australia Report and a review of the Education Services For Overseas Students Act all argue for better services and infrastructure including orientation in Australian culture and education; safety at school, at work and in the community; affordable accommodation with enforced tenancy rights; public transport concessions and access to mental health services. Affordable housing is an increasing concern across Sydney, especially in the inner city, and while Commonwealth funding to build affordable accommodation has helped universities increase options, international students compete in a high-demand and high-price market.
I call upon the New South Wales Government to expand the low-cost housing exemption in the Land Tax Act which I proposed in this place in 1992. The Government could also support initiatives like Homeshare, which operates in Victoria and New Zealand and which provides accommodation at reduced rent to students who live with someone in need of help and companionship for up to 10 hours a week. Both groups benefit, with international students accessing affordable accommodation, language practice and a gateway to local culture. The Residential Tenancies Act leaves people in shared housing and boarders and lodgers vulnerable with no legal protection, and many international students end up in overcrowded conditions paying inflated rents and losing bonds. I have repeatedly called for tenancy rights for marginal renters. International students say they feel like second-class citizens because unlike other students they have to pay full public transport fares.
The Council of International Students of Australia, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Association and Sydney University Postgraduate Student Association all raised this unfair treatment with me, pointing out that international students already pay $60,000 to $140,000 for an undergraduate degree. I again call on the transport Minister to follow the lead of all other States and Territories, other than Victoria, and provide travel concessions to all students. Canadian university fees include a $105 fee which entitles all students to unlimited public transport travel. The New South Wales Government should work with the education providers on similar initiatives to make it easier and cheaper for students to use public transport. The City of Sydney works with the local police to inform international students about safety, housing and how to make the best of their time here. Inner-city police commanders have been proactive and I am thankful there appears to be no pattern of crime targeting international students in Sydney.
Our education system is very different to many Asian countries as we have an emphasis on interaction with teachers and peers and we encourage critical questioning. The Federal Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 report and university support services recognise that international students may need help to adjust to our interactive and analytical learning system and to use academic English. Overseas student health cover does not include access to mental health services even though there could be major stresses for international students like language and cultural barriers, study pressure and distance from family support networks.
The Government should ensure that international students have access to all basic healthcare services. In the past Australia has had a proud history in international education, The Colombo Plan sponsored thousands of Asian students to study in Australian tertiary institutions from the 1950s. We trained students who returned home to build physical, government and social infrastructure, and we should build on this tradition of being good neighbours. I call on the State Government to ensure that international students who come to Australia are safe, learn about Australia and our culture, and finish their studies with a positive experience.