Address to the Australian International Education Conference, Hobart

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so very much, Phil. I have a little bell here to keep my own time giving this speech.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a delight to be with you all this morning to welcome those of you from overseas here, and welcoming any international guests, as well as delegates from all around Australia. I do so in also acknowledging the traditional owners of Australia, the Indigenous peoples from around Australia here in the Hobart region, the Mouheneenner people, acknowledge their elders past and present. And as a nation we continue to learn from tens of thousands of years of culture, and build upon that culture together.

Phil, to you as the convener of the Council for International Education, and of course chief executive of the IEAA, and president, Mr Chris Ziguras, all of the honoured colleagues, friends and guests, it’s a delight to be back with you once again for this Australian International Education Conference.

It is a pleasure to be here. And as Phil alluded I can prove that because this is the third time I’ve addressed this conference, having only just entered my third year as Minister for Education and Training. First was back in my host city of Adelaide in 2015 just days in to the role as Minister for Education and Training. And then again at last year’s event– there goes that bell again.

Then again at last year’s event in Melbourne and here of course for the third occasion. So, there’s an evidence base – as I’d like to say in education – that I’m clearly enjoying the engagement in this sector, getting a lot out of it. And I hope and trust, indeed, as you are through your continued record numbers of participants engaged with the IEAA Conference.

These conferences are an excellent opportunity for all of us to consider where we’ve been and where we need to get to. An opportunity to confirm what is working across international education and to consider what we can do better. To look at the challenges we face, the strategic and economic changes and tensions in our region or globally, and indeed other parts of the world. These are always in realistic focus at this conference, realistic focus and discussion about what is happening here in Australia and around the globe in terms of its impact on international education.

This event is potentially good business diligence. Vigilance, willingness of the sector to pause, reflect and learn in a methodical way. That’s what helps to keep Australian international education on track. To keep growing in size, in stature and in value. As Phil alluded, it is an incredibly significant sector, industry we now face. The latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicated that international education contributed some $28 billion to the Australian economy in the 2016-17 financial year: a significant 16 per cent increase on the proceeding. This continuing upward trend takes us beyond our current half a million students onshore, and more than 100,000 in trans-national education programs offshore.

So, international education, as we know is, Australia’s third largest export earner, contributing many more than 130,000 jobs here in Australia. I know there has been much speculation with Brexit, but thanks to your strong branding as a sector, your hard work as individuals and entities and good policy settings, 76 per cent of our international students here in Australia chose Australia as their first preference destination, compared to 71 per cent in 2014 or 70 per cent in 2012. So, a pleasing indication that as the number of students have grown, so too has the fact that Australia has been their first choice destination.

This year’s conference theme – embracing diversity – is, I believe, highly relevant to that position as a choice of destination. A diverse sector is a strong sector. Diversity, of course, can mean many things. It is rightly thought of as a mainstay in cultural understanding, a provider of a provider of bilateral and multi-lateral goodwill, a promoter of good relations between nations. The value of being able to reach across the seas to our regional neighbours and beyond, through our people-to-people education links, can never be understated. It has served us well at home and abroad, since the original Colombo Plan. It benefits us, and it works for our neighbours in the region. Diversity also refers to a sound risk management strategy. We are doing well managing and extending our inflows, but, of course, we can always do more.

Australia’s leading source markets – China, India, Malaysia, Vietnam and Nepal – make up 53 per cent of our students. That’s a solidly diverse list in a regional sense. When we add other markets like Brazil, South Korea and Colombia, that also enthusiastically choose Australia, we see there is a broad market base to work with.

However, there is plenty of scope to go further. If we look to our number of students coming here from countries that are not in our top 10, there are good signs. As of July 2017, almost 209,000 students came from what we term other countries: the list at the bottom. Combined, they compare with our number one source country, China, where 233,000 students came to us this year, an indication that those other nations combined exceed Chinese student numbers and of course belong very much on the list for potential expansion growth.

Now, brand will play a big part in extending our reach. But then so will the brands of other nations. Our capacity to continue to attract students will rely heavily upon our reputation; our reputation as a welcoming and relatively safe nation, one that embraces diversity in all of its forms. Protecting that reputation, improving education quality, and providing reliability for students and their families in information and services, must be the key to continued success.

There is no substitute for the painstaking research, relationship building and diligent follow-up that nurtures new and promising markets. I know that spotting opportunities, acting upon them and coming up with new ways to market Australia is what so many in this room do every day. Now, there’s a new lead.

A few weeks ago. I had the honour of giving an address at the opening of the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide. In it, I announced that the Australian Government would be establishing a national Australian space agency. It will be the front door to Australia for the world’s space industries. Our space agency announcement provides a first-class opportunity for providers training students in disciplines from aerospace engineering to astrophysics to aviation to commerce, international and space law, human physiology, ICT even. It could be said – if you will pardon the rather terrible pun – that the sky’s the limit.

The space agency also provides international research and commercialisation opportunities. For example, I note that the University of New South Wales has been working for the past year with the Department of Defence in Canberra to put Australian defence satellites into space. International student interest in space-related disciplines is, dare I say it – another bad pun – bound to be astronomical. It is – I promise that’s the last one – it is, after all, a $329 billion industry globally.

But I’ll leave further research and development of that idea to you and your academic and management boards. It is just one example of the many different continually emerging areas in which new opportunities arise for enhanced diversity of participants in areas of education which we deliver, as well as the focus on diversity across markets.

If I look forward to seeing this exciting and innovative initiative of the Turnbull Government to deliver a new crop of international student cohorts, there’s also another interpretation of diversity that I particularly like. It’s that through international education, Australian students are exposed to different and sometimes better ways of thinking and doing things.

International students bring a cultural and linguistic depth to our schools, to our universities, workplaces, our educational institutions and to our communities. They open our students to global ideas and support Australia’s ability to influence events on the world stage. Diversity helps those students to thrive in global employment markets. They know how to find common ground and better extend themselves beyond the familiar. Australian students therefore become braver, better equipped and literally better educated in the ways of the world, thanks to their international counterparts.

I know, and you know, that the benefits of international education are not always, in the wider community, well recognised. Yet, as we’ve indicated, they are enormous; whether on the basis of export income, jobs or contribution to GDP.

And they are not all in cities. Wherever there is a university or a good college there are international students, quietly creating economic activity, and that means jobs. Deloitte Access Economics found back in 2014-’15, that the proportion of indirect jobs – rather than those engaging in education – is as high as 30 per cent of the total employment flowing from international student activity. It got up to 50 per cent in the Northern Territory. In my home state of South Australia, over 8000 jobs were created, with around 2500 of them [indistinct]…and as a direct result of collaboration with your sector.

The process that led to the Strategy’s development involved many of you, directly and indirectly, so we know it captures the essence of what is needed and required. It draws on a meeting of some of our best minds, in government, the community and education sector. The Council for International Education, which Phil referred to, has been fundamental to guiding this process. With expert members, including Phil, bringing together diverse voices from across Australia.

If we looked at the three pillars of the strategy, we would see some of it has already been achieved. We have strengthened the fundamentals, the first of the pillars, by making sure our regulation is rigorous and the sector’s integrity is maintained.

We have weeded out those who exploited the former VET-FEE HELP scheme and their disgraceful conduct. The Turnbull Government acted decisively to curb this, and, in doing so, has importantly strengthened information sharing across different regulators and departments, to prevent such dodgy providers from sector-hopping in the future.

We have released stronger and simpler quality standards through the National Code of Practice for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students. The Code, among other things, ensures greater transparency in information provided to international students, and greater protections for those students who are under 18. The Code also sets out an expectation that education agents have appropriate knowledge and understanding of the Agent Code of Ethics, which I spoke about at this conference last year.

Further to these advances, I’m pleased today to announce, after extensive consultation – and I particularly pay tribute here to Brett Blacker from English Australia for their engagement as the lead representative body in this process – we’ve developed new standards for English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students, or ELICOS, as it’s more affectionately known; new standards that boost the quality, the reputation of our English language providers.

English language providers form a very significant part of Australia’s international education sector, with students from overseas rightly looking to develop their English language skills, so that they can enhance their career prospects or lead them on pathways to further study. It’s the second pillar of the strategy to strengthen partnerships at home and abroad.

The new standards the Turnbull Government is introducing will ensure more students have the right level of English language to interact, to contribute, and to ultimately succeed in Australia. What we hear from TEQSA, from other students and their families, from concerned employers, from Phil, this association and others, is that too many students are slipping through the cracks. Some just don’t have the English language skills they need to succeed. It means they draw away from getting involved in lectures or tutorials or group work, while their classmates and teachers struggle to bridge the language divide.

It’s not fair to those international students, to the Australian students studying alongside them, or to their teachers, for them not to be given the skills they need to succeed. Many would be surprised to learn that under the current system students can transition from an ELICOS course to further study without any mandatory assessment of their language skills. It’s clear that we need better standards, more scrutiny in the system.

So the new standards will make it compulsory for students to be assessed on their pathway into other tertiary education courses, to ensure they have the right level of English language skills to succeed. This is about ensuring our students, wherever they come from, have the English language skills they need to participate, contribute and learn.

The second major change will be to extend the standards to include vocational education and training courses which are currently excluded. VET courses and degree courses shouldn’t be treated differently: they both need a strong grasp of the English language, albeit perhaps at different levels. That means for the first time ELICOS study via VET courses will require particular teacher qualifications, as is the case elsewhere, set out with a minimum of 20 face-to-face contact hours, and a maximum teacher-to-student ratio of one to 18. These new standards will give more students better skills which will set them up for further study and work in Australia successfully.

Our incredible success for the nation in attracting international students to Australia is reliant upon our reputation for quality education; a reputation which will be protected and strengthened by these changes.

We have also ushered in new visa arrangements, as you know, which are simpler for students to understand and access, and which make the application process faster and less onerous for many. And, as many of you are aware, we’ve reduced the Tuition Protection Service levy, a tax cut, if you like, for the sector.

In terms of making transformative partnerships, we also played a leading role in the development of the first APEC Education Strategy, which seeks to enhance competencies, accelerate innovation and increase employability. We are working to improve the recognition of transnational qualifications and skills to further underpin the internationalisation of education, and work to create new opportunities for Australian providers as part of those transnational qualifications.

The relationships and agreements between governments are fundamental to the ongoing success of our international sector. That’s why we have dedicated Education, Science and Research Counsellors in cities such as Beijing, Kuala Lumpur and Washington. I’m pleased to announce today that my Department will be expanding this global counsellor network. A new counsellor will be appointed from early 2018 to support our work across Latin America, to be based in Mexico City.

This will add to the good work that you are already doing, growing our international reach and reputation, particularly in that part of the world. It builds on our Government’s investment of over $90 million a year in making international connections through our suite of Mobility and Scholarship funding opportunities under the New Colombo Plan and the Australia Endeavour Awards.

The third pillar in our strategy – competing globally – reminds us that we need to ensure to take business acumen into new markets, new delivery modes and new ways of learning. When I visited India earlier this year, as many of you have, I heard all about the potential for skills training of some 400 million of its citizens by 2022. Australia stands ready and willing to work alongside our partners in India to achieve those goals.

Other regional neighbours’ economies are equally changing, and they also want to grow their services, tourism and technology sectors. There, again, is ample scope for diversification.

International education, though, is more than just formal training; it is also, for those who choose to study in Australia, about providing a uniquely Australian experience. If the education experience in Brisbane differs too little from an education experience in Beijing, then we have lost much of what drives our success: that unique student experience.

I’ve noted the recent report published by the China Matters organisation, suggesting additional standards for universities with particular regard for Chinese students, though I’m confident that our regulator TEQSA has set out very clear standards and expectations that universities are required to meet.

The onus rests firmly with providers to ensure they are upholding those standards, and also to make it clear how valued an Australian education is across all parts of the globe. It requires universities to equip all students with skills in independent and critical thinking and knowledge; knowledge and skills for employment and further study; and to foster a safe and supportive higher education environment.

We can further expand that experience by finding more opportunities to support the employability of graduates and further support work-integrated learning. Our institutions and courses are valued for the skills and knowledge they give students, the experiences they offer and the openness of ideas and discussions that they foster. To use a little of the Australian vernacular, the belief in a fair go is central to our success. That means a fair go at challenging ideas – your own or those of others; a fair go at being heard and discussing your opinions; a fair go for everyone in the education process.

No law or regulation governments make can ensure that value of open discussion thrives better than can the active participation of our students, our staff, our faculty at our education institutions. Academic freedoms are, quite rightly, ferociously defended. Independence and integrity are central to the high overall standard of our education providers, which in turn is central to their ongoing appeal to international students. I’m confident this reality is well understood by providers.

When the Council for International Education meets this week, I anticipate that one of the steps it will take will be the establishment of two working groups, to ensure strong student service delivery and national consistency in marketing and collaboration. These groups will look at ways to deliver the best possible student experience. Following that meeting, the Government will open the second round of the Enabling Growth and Innovation projects fund for public submissions. We’ll consider proposals from across the international education community to help us further implement the national strategy, with a particular focus on enhancing the experience for international students studying in Australia.

You know and I know that international education is a strong and vital part of our education system. We are doing well. The high quality of Australian education institutions and our solid and reliable reputation attracts more than half a million students each year from around 200 countries.

We are doing very well, and thanks in big part to the people in this room, we can continue to do even better by our students, our communities and our peers. I look forward to seeing your proposals to build the best international education sector in the world, and to promote far and wide the extraordinary value of an Australian international education. Thank you for taking the time to participate in this valuable conference, these valuable discussions, and I look forward to continuing to support your incredibly successful and valuable work. Thanks very much.