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Question: International Students

13 May 2021

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (14:56): I seek leave to make a brief explanation before addressing a question without notice to the minister representing the Premier on the topic of international students.

Leave granted.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: Before the pandemic, international students were a big export earner for South Australia, bringing in more than $2 billion a year, creating jobs in our local economy and helping our accommodation, hospitality and tourism industries. Last November, South Australia was given approval to pilot bringing back 300 students but that trial has since stalled. The New South Wales government have announced their plan to bring international students back to university campuses this year, which is now under consideration of the federal government. My question to the Treasurer is: with our international borders expected to remain closed until mid-2022 and no additional funding for our universities, where is the state government's plan to bring international students back to the state up to?

The PRESIDENT: The Treasurer has the call. I heard most of the Hon. Mr Simms' question but there was some interjection happening on my left, and I would like to hear the Treasurer's answer.

The Hon. R.I. LUCAS (Treasurer) (14:57): Thank you, Mr President. I would like to hear it too. On behalf of the Premier, I know he would welcome the honourable member's question and his interest in this particular area. This is a particular passion of the Premier and indeed the government. He has been working actively with the Minister for Health, the minister for industry and trade and their respective officers in relation to this issue.

You can rest assured that the Premier and the responsible ministers and officers have active proposals before the commonwealth government for their consideration, but it does require approval of the commonwealth government. It is not just the New South Wales government that's interested in this area. The Board of Treasurers discussions I have had over recent months indicate that certainly Chief Minister Andrew Barr from the ACT has been actively engaged in this space, as has the New South Wales government, as has the South Australian government.

So there are a number of jurisdictions that have varying proposals, of varying nature and complexions, before the commonwealth government, but ultimately it does require the agreement of the commonwealth government in relation to these issues. We are not able to take these decisions as sovereign nations in ourselves because we are not a sovereign nation in South Australia. We are part of the commonwealth and, clearly, the federal government has the major say in relation to this.

I know that the Minister for Health and his officers, as I said, have been actively engaged. We do have, in our view, a viable proposition awaiting approval and we will have to sit back and work together cooperatively with the commonwealth government, as some of the other jurisdictions are, to see whether we can get an early response from the commonwealth government.

We are certainly very hopeful that it will be much sooner than the middle of next year that the honourable member has raised, which is the general federal budget assumption about the opening up of borders more broadly—the attraction of international students in pilot programs, specially controlled, monitored, etc., with all the sorts of rigorous controls that Australians and South Australians would want to ensure the safety of South Australians in relation to this program.

But the member is right, there is a genuine passion from the Premier. He recognises, as the member does, that international students and international education are an important part of our universities' financial experience and our state's export performance but it is also our state's future attractiveness in terms of hoping to keep some of these young students on, all with an ongoing interest in what occurs here in South Australia. It is a win-win from the state's viewpoint, and the Premier and the government are actively engaged.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (15:00): Whilst these discussions are ensuing between the state and federal governments, will the state government commit to providing our higher education institutions with a lifeline to ensure that there are no further staff cuts or potential campus closures?

The Hon. R.I. LUCAS (Treasurer) (15:00): That is where we might diverge: the answer is no. I have had that discussion with vice-chancellors in the universities and they have very strong balance sheets. The honourable member is probably familiar with some of our universities. They have strong balance sheets, considerable assets and, yes, they have faced challenges to varying degrees, but I would invite the honourable member to look at the recent financial report of one of our three universities which indicates that, contrary to their earlier expectations, they have emerged in a relatively strong financial position.

As I said to one of the vice-chancellors, their balance sheet was very attractive to the state Treasurer. We envied the fact that they weren't running deficits and debt levels the size that the state was having to run to try to save jobs, save businesses and to help households. I made that comment half in jest, tongue-in-cheek but, nevertheless, the answer to the honourable member's question is the same that I gave to the universities on behalf of the government, that we weren't going to help them out.

I hasten to say that we did provide emergency assistance during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic last year via my colleague the Minister for Human Services—in terms of emergency assistance. My recollection is that we provided a financial package of around about $13 million, not to bail out the universities but to actually use them as a mechanism to provide assistance—some of that money; I think it was $10 million of the $13 million—to students who were struggling for food or basic needs: emergency assistance during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The PRESIDENT: The Hon. Mr Simms has a supplementary.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (15:02): If the balance sheets of these universities are so spectacular, could the Treasurer shed any light on why our South Australian universities might be laying off staff?

The Hon. R.I. LUCAS (Treasurer) (15:03): I am happy to have another conversation, which is consistent with the standing orders, with the honourable member after question time, but the reality is that universities have to make decisions and some of them may well be related to COVID. In many respects they may not be related to COVID, but whatever decisions the universities have taken, they are significantly less than they were contemplating through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Running universities, big institutions, there are always challenges in relation to how they manage their budgets. However, they are in a relatively very healthy position given the strength of their balance sheets.