Address to the English Australia Annual ELICOS Conference, Adelaide

Simon Birmingham:

Thank you very much Mark for that welcome. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you. It’s wonderful to be here at your conference, for the opening of your conference. Particularly wonderful though to hear that you were all here last night in my old workplace at the National Life Centre, enjoying some of South Australia’s best, taking home some of South Australia’s best I hope as well, and I trust that you will hopefully indeed extend that today for those who are interstate into the weekend.

Can I commence by acknowledging the Kaurna people, the traditional owners of the Adelaide land, and all of Australia’s Indigenous peoples and acknowledge that we continue to learn much from Indigenous knowledge and culture, of Indigenous knowledge and culture, and of course build upon that as a nation. I acknowledge the CEO of English Australia, Brett Blacker. Marc, thank you for your chairmanship of this conference, and Cynthia and Ian, the deputy chairs, ladies and gentlemen all.

I gather this celebration is your 30th year of English Australia, the 30th conference. So congratulations and happy birthday following last night’s celebrations. For many people, the commencement of their 30s denotes a time of consolidation, perhaps settling down, putting their knowledge into practice, and perhaps a tapering down of their partying years in some case.

I’ll leave it for you to judge how aptly or not any of those particular aspects of that analogy relates to English Australia. But I do note that this year’s conference theme is empowering global citizens, and of course there are all sorts of ways to empower people around the world and here at home. Once the fundamentals of food, water, safety, health and shelter are met, a person’s path to empowerment then commences with education. That’s as true here in Adelaide as it is in Mumbai or Shanghai, Paris or London or anywhere else.

For many people, that path includes learning English – a powerful language of commerce and communication, spoken by up to 1.5 billion people across all parts of the globe. By undertaking a high quality, intensive English language course, people learn more than just verb conjugation or the like. Done effectively, they are able to make strong personal connections with people that enhance their learning experience and contribute to the learning experiences of those around them. You, as English language providers, have a critical role in ensuring that those on pathways to study take with them the language skills they need to interact, to contribute and to succeed.

So today I want to start by thanking you, thanking you all for your commitment to the sector that supports English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students – or ELICOS, as we know it – and for the role that you play in commencing the Australian learning journey for so many of those students. The reputation of the sector relies on a great part on students leaving you with the level of English acquisition that they need to succeed in their chosen course.

In July of this year, there were estimated more than half a million international students studying in Australia – an increase of 15 per cent compared to the same period last year. Last financial year, international education contributed an estimated $22 billion to our economy, supported more than 130,000 jobs across Australia. As Australia’s third largest export overall, it now makes an enormous contribution for our economic prosperity, including particularly in parts of regional Australia. ELICOS plays a significant role in that, often perhaps an under-recognised role, through its English language teaching and by preparing students for further study in Australia.

I am sure you’re all probably quite familiar with these statistics, that last year Australia hosted more than 173,000 ELICOS students – the highest number recorded ever. About two-thirds of those students were on student visas, and more than 60 per cent of those student visa holders would go on to continue into further study, mainly in higher education or vocational education, but some also in schools. The latest enrolments data for the first six months of the year showed ELICOS enrolments by those on student visas are up by a further seven per cent on the same period last year.

It’s a tribute to you that 90 per cent of ELICOS students who responded to our international student survey reported last year that they were satisfied with their living and learning experience in Australia – a resounding result, a resounding endorsement of the quality of experience that they enjoy whilst here.

It’s not just international students who benefit though. Australian students benefit, and international students are able to contribute to debate and group work by having the necessary language proficiency to fully participate. It also serves to give confidence to the community that those participating in the higher education system are meeting the necessary tests and benchmarks that the community expects of them. Having students who can’t understand what is happening in tutorials or assignment tasks is no good for those individuals, the lecturer, their classmates, the institutions, or the reputation of our education system overall.

It’s testament to the shared Australian values of openness and mateship that we are willing to embrace people who come to our shores to better their lives, including through education, that we welcome to our classrooms, our tutorials, our schools, our education facilities in general. But in return, we ask those students to engage, participate, contribute to the richness of the learning experience while they are here, to maximise that learning experience for themselves, but also for those Australian students whom they study alongside.

Gaining the necessary English language skills is a key to realising that. Of course, a successful and vibrant learning environment, integrating growing numbers of international students, does not happen on autopilot. Your work, alongside the work of regulators and others, is essential. The Turnbull Government has been pleased to work with you to ensure the continued high quality and good reputation of the sector.

As you know, we’re reviewing the ELICOS standards we’ve set; the quality standards that all providers must meet. We’ve introduced legislation to reinforce provider integrity, and we’re committed to making sure our visa settings continue to attract the best and brightest students to our shores. We recognise the importance of putting in place measures to safeguard the integrity of the ELICOS sector and the international sector as a whole.

The results of the 2016 international student survey underscored the importance of the issues that we are taking; that of the 11,000 ELICOS students surveyed, 97 per cent reported they chose Australia because of the high quality teaching that we, that you – providers – offer. That’s a demonstration that quality is everything. Quality, of course, drives student choices, and the maintenance of quality is essential to maintaining the strong market that we enjoy.

You know this better than anyone, and I want to take this opportunity to thank all of those of you who have been part of our public consultation process to review the ELICOS standards. This review has considered a number of policy and regulatory issues, including the intersection between the VET and ELICOS sectors, the teacher qualifications and other quality indicators, such as student-teacher ratios and the hours of face-to-face learning and quality assurance of ELICOS training. There’s been a close working relationship between my department, ASQA, TEQSA and English Australia through this process.

I’m pleased to confirm today that we have completed our consultation on the ELICOS standards with English Australia and the other international education peak bodies, that they are very close to finalisation, and we will release the new standards imminently. I thank English Australia for their constructive contribution to ensure that we maintain our reputation as a nation, as providers, for high quality.

We anticipate the new standards will apply from 1 January next year, with a period of staggered implementation to allow time to adjust.

Recently, our Government passed legislation that sets a deliberately high bar for education providers that want to teach international students. These reforms help the Government to ensure that only the best providers enter the sector.

We have all been disappointed and frustrated, to say the least, to see examples of unscrupulous business models which could threaten the good reputation and integrity of the sector; whether it’s the rorting of the VET FEE-HELP scheme or deceptive and fraudulent behaviour in early childhood education.

The changes that we’re ushering in help us to guarantee, across all aspects, that we have stronger tests to evaluate whether providers are equipped to deliver the highest quality outcomes; more comprehensive reporting to regulators, to monitor and prevent unscrupulous persons operating in one sector from transferring into the international education space; and new information-sharing provisions to allow government agencies to respond quickly to emerging integrity threats.

We don’t expect that these changes will affect the majority of providers that we know are operating with integrity. Rather, the changes seek to maintain the high quality of our sector by targeting the minority of providers or potential providers who seek to act unscrupulously.

One rotten apple makes one more wary of biting into the next one. We are very conscious of making sure that we do not see repeat market failure in other sectors or regulatory failure in other sectors welcomed to yours.

The Turnbull Government has also released the revised National Code of Practice for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students. The National Code represents our commitment to being a global leader in education, training and research, and it’s in line with priorities identified by the Council for International Education, and follows extensive consultation processes with many organisations, including English Australia.

It requires providers to give information to students about their safety on campuses, and strengthens the arrangements for the care and welfare of students under the age of 18 in particular. It will also require providers to give students transparent information to help them make decisions about studying in Australia, and it maintains strong protections against the poaching of students by more dubious providers. And it will do all of this while minimising the regulatory burden on providers.

We’ve also – I’m pleased to say – taken steps to reduce some of the financial burden on international education providers. The Tuition Protection Service provides unique student protection, and gives Australia a competitive edge and contributes to our reputation as a preferred study destination, by providing real, tangible safeguards for the students.

But pleasingly, we’re able to lower the TPS levy – a tax cut, if you like – next year; one tax cut – I’m pleased to say – that even our political opponents supported us on. It will further increase Australia’s competitiveness by enabling you, as education providers, to focus on quality, reputations and student readiness for study, and to have a slightly lesser cost overhead in terms of the TPS levy.

As you know, we have also been examining our student visa settings and considering how to ensure they best continue to support growth in international education into the future. I know that reforms to visa arrangements are watched very closely by many of you, mindful of the direct impacts or unintended knock-on effects that you’ve seen over the years, particularly a few years ago under our political predecessors.

It is important the community can continue to have full confidence in our visa system, that it manages risks effectively and that it is not open to gaming. I’m pleased to reassure you today though that the Government’s changes in July last year had a positive effect on the international education sector. The reforms have reduced the number of student visas from seven to one and made the visa arrangements simpler for students by streamlining evidentiary requirements. The effect is less onerous, simpler and faster application processes, which have been broadly welcomed by students and agents and, pleasingly, by many of you.

And there are positive signs in the numbers. Last financial year, the number of student visas jumped 10 per cent compared to the previous financial year. More recently, we’ve been working closely with the sector and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to ensure the 457 visa changes in relation to student occupation lists do not impact on our international competitiveness.

I’ve spoken a lot today – and with good reason, I hope – about the successes we have had and you have had in this sector. There are of course opportunities and challenges ahead too. Australia is facing increasing competition from other countries vying for international students. That competition is coming from nations with longstanding international education offerings – such as the US or the UK – but also the nations that are strengthening their domestic education systems – such as China or the Philippines. We will all need to be vigilant to safeguard our market share and our capacity to attract students.

One way of doing that is to adopt some of the new delivery models made possible through technology. These will open doors for international students to potentially enjoy an Australian education in their home countries through online learning. I know the ELICOS sector has embraced off-shore education opportunities and is well-placed to take advantage of technology to complement face-to-face teaching and further reach ELICOS students. Indeed, I’m confident that these are some of the changes and transitions that you are discussing as part of this conference. But there is online learning and then there’s, well, online learning. We are only as good as our reputation and once you lose it, as we all know, it takes a hell of a long time to recover.

We have been successful in markets like Latin America where we have seen ELICOS enrolments grow more than 20 per cent in the first half of this year compared to the same period last year. But all of this needs to be strategic, measured and with a firm eye to quality, because that is the one thing that can continuously, solidly set us apart. Quality whatever the delivery; quality wherever it is delivered. Unfettered growth in student numbers rather than assuring the quality of the student experience could, would, see us diminish the brand. [Indistinct] we must make sure that every step we take is focused on the quality of the experience.

All of this links back to the guiding principle set out in the National Strategy for International Education 2025. And those of us with a commitment to grow the sector, but do so sustainably with an eye to the next decade, [indistinct].

The Council for International Education is our key advisory body on how we continue to roll out and deliver on that strategy. Membership of the council is drawn from experts across the sector, including, of course, CEO of English Australia, Brett Blacker. Those members have agreed on four key priorities: developing a nationally consistent approach to marketing and branding of international education, communicating the benefits of international education to the Australian community, enhancing international cooperation through in-country projects, through research collaboration, through mobility and through transnational education, and providing the best possible student experience, including developing employability skills and regional development .

We recognise ELICOS as a key, core component of the international education sector. It is through quality assurance that the students have gained the requisite language proficiency that accords with their visas and gives them the best chance to realise their dream of studying in Australia and ensures success and the benefits from those studies.

Without the right language skills, the learning experience suffers, as I’ve said before, not just for those international students, but indeed for domestic students. We look to you to play the vital role in maintaining and enhancing Australia’s long-term reputation as a place, a growing place, a priority place, a preferred location to study, to work and to do business.

Thank you for the commitment that you show in the sector by participating in fora such as this one, by engaging in the discussions that focus on quality and delivery, the opportunities to enhance that quality through new delivery modes, through your engagement and your regulatory processes. We really do welcome your commitment. Thank you very much for the opportunity to be with you today and I wish you every success in your continued discussions.