Aug 18, 2020







SUBJECTS: International students in Australia during the coronavirus pandemic; higher education; universities; Ruby Princess debacle.


NICK RHEINBERGER, HOST: Well, you may have seen some really disturbing stories about higher education over the last few days. That is, some students, some foreign students, say they feel alone and quite unsupported in Australia at the moment. They travelled here in good faith and of course have not been able to do their university courses and have not been able to get any assistance from the Government. The same is true, unfortunately, of some University lecturers. A special ABC investigation has found that in some cases, lecturers have been given mere minutes to mark a paper and they’re being incredibly underpaid. I spoke about that earlier this morning with Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese. But first of all, to what he calls Australia’s second biggest export, which is higher education, and what is happening in that sector and how that could be better protected by our Federal Government.


ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well, it’s a real problem at the moment. You have university students who haven’t been eligible for any support. And that, no doubt, has undermined our reputation as a destination. And this is Australia’s second largest export. It’s very important for our national economy and it’s particularly important for regional universities.


RHEINBERGER: What sort of support do you think would have been appropriate?


ALBANESE: I think to just leave people stranded is a problem. I attended Exodus Foundation in Ashfield, run by Bill Crews, a number of times. I volunteer there. And what we’ve had there, normally you have people who’ve been impacted by homelessness, by drug addiction, by all sorts of issues, they’re the most vulnerable people in society. What’s happened in recent times is that they’ve all been joined by overseas students from Nepal and other countries, queuing essentially relying upon charity for food. Now, there are many international students who have an income and are from backgrounds that enabled to go okay. But many of them rely upon part-time jobs, they rely upon an income being earned here while they study. And they, of course, were some of the first people who were laid off because they’re casual by definition. And they received no income support whatsoever. The other problem that we’ve got here is the plan to make it more expensive to go to university is now so bad that even the National Party’s junior Education Minister has slammed it themselves. There’s a lot of confusion in the university sector about how they are going to maintain financial viability. We’ve seen significant job losses in the university sector. We’ve seen university workers not being eligible for JobKeeper. And that’s caused real hardship in the sector.


RHEINBERGER: Did you say it was our second biggest export? Are we going to be losing customers into the future because of the way we’ve treated some overseas students? Happy to take their money in the good times, but not to support them in times like this?


ALBANESE: Well, Australia’s international reputation is critical. And in the past, the fact that students have had a good experience has been a real plus. When I was in India, leading a delegation there two years ago, I launched the Alumni Association. Now, that has potential membership of hundreds of thousands of Indian citizens who’ve studied in Australia and who love Australia, who have enjoyed the experience, who want to keep up connections with each other and with Australia. Now, that can only be good for us. India will be the third largest economy in the world in coming decades, and it is an important export market for us, it is an important tourism market. One of the things that happens with international students is that their families come and visit them, and they themselves then come back for extensive periods of time. I think one of the things that Julie Bishop got right was to support the re-establishment of Colombo type scholarships, whereby we have support for an exchange of Australian students studying overseas and international students studying here. Because what we know is that has served us well in the past and it can serve us even better in the future if we get it right.


RHEINBERGER: While I have got you, just a completely different subject, we’ve had Premier Gladys Berejiklian apologise unreservedly to those people affected by the escape of COVID-19 patients from the Ruby Princess. And yet the criticism remains, particularly from Kristina Keneally, about the performance of the Federal Government. Are you satisfied, given the results of the investigation into the Ruby Princess, that this is primarily a screw-up by New South Wales Health?


ALBANESE: Well, it was Scott Morrison who said that the Australian Border Force would be in charge. It was Scott Morrison who said that cruise ships wouldn’t be allowed to dock, and people wouldn’t be allowed to disembark and that the Australian Border Force would be in charge of that. Scott Morrison also then, of course, stopped federal officials giving evidence before Bret Walker’s commission of inquiry. So, there are still major questions to be answered about federal officials’ role in this whole sorry saga. And I note that Gladys Berejiklian has apologised unreservedly. That’s a good thing. But no one has been held to account for this debacle that resulted in the loss of so many lives and families suffering greatly not just in Sydney but, of course, exponentially, because of the spread of coronavirus of which Ruby Princess was responsible for hundreds of people being infected.


RHEINBERGER: That is Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese, talking to me earlier on this morning here 97.3 ABC Illawarra Mornings.