SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thank you for all coming along today and firstly, my apologies that we were a little late, Catharine assured me that the schedule was done on Shanghai traffic, not Adelaide traffic. While it’s good to be here, can I also, just out the outset begin by thanking Austcham for hosting this event, express slight concern at your extent of internal democracy at present. I, as much as I may happily be an elected official in Australia, I must say, especially for internal matters, I’m much for the fan of guided democracy for appropriate outcomes. 

It’s great to be here and we’ve been in Beijing for the last couple of days before getting here this morning…this afternoon, I’m losing track of the time already! And particularly to be here focussing on vocational education and training. The people in this room don’t need a lecture about how in what good shape the China Australia relationship broadly is because the people in this room well and truly appreciate the extent of bilateral visits by the leaders of both countries to each other, the success in those bilateral visits and the fact that trade is at record levels and it is, of course, the largest raining partnership we now have. 

The success of the free trade agreement, the signing recently of the terms around the infrastructure bank and, of course, a range of other partnerships that we have successfully forged over the years and education stands out, not just as one of those partnerships, but in many ways, from my perspective and the government’s perspective, perhaps the most important of those partnerships because it is not only an economic and a financial partnership that delivers us significant economic returns to Australia but it is, of course, also a cultural partnership. A partnership that forges greater mutual understanding of one another and will strengthen all of the other ties we have. Be they financial, be they cultural, even to security and political in the years to come will all be strengthened by the reality that hundreds of thousands of Chinese students and increasingly many thousands of Australian students have had that experience of studying in each other’s country and come to appreciate and understand each other to a much greater extent.

Right now we have about 130,000 Chinese students studying in Australia across the fore sweeps of our educational offering, universities, vocational education and training, schools and English language provision. But we also have a number of Australian educational institutions delivering training here in China, again, across all of those four sectors and in the vocational education and training sector we have institutions providing training for around 35,000 Chinese students right here in China already. And what we’ve been talking about the last couple of days is how we can try to strengthen all aspects of the relationship, whether it is training delivered in Australia or training delivered here in China. In building that relationship, we’ve had great discussions with the relevant ministries with responsibilities for education, of course, but also with responsibility for labour and the workforce, and we’ve had a very good dialogue session yesterday in Beijing that saw officials from the different ministries exchange, not just their views, but reach agreements at the end of the day in terms of the next steps they’d be taking towards an MOU between our countries around education and vocational education and training in particular as well as our regulators agreeing to cooperate and we had the Chief Commissioner from the Australian Skills and Quality Authority in Beijing and reaching that agreement to work with his Chinese counterparts to ensure that our vocational education and training providers in China are audited and assessed by our Australian regulators to make sure they’re operating and delivering Australian qualifications at exactly the same standard and level and quality here in China as we would expect those qualifications to be being delivered in Australia. That’s important because one of the key parts of our offering and our desire to be able to grow our market here in China is, of course, to be able to demonstrate the high quality of the training that is available. It’s important, not just because it’s increasing Chinese capacity and capabilities, but because, as a number of people in this room alluded to, it also increases the capacity of Australian businesses operating here in China to be able to access the skilled labour they need and especially where they are Australian qualifications, to know what that qualification means and what it means to have that skilled person come and work for them because you can have confidence in the skill sets and competencies that the individual holds.

In the domestic VET space, since becoming Minister 6-7 months ago now, we’ve been pursuing a pretty ambitious reform agenda of making sure that we are deriving and delivering the highest quality of standards and we’ve strengthened our quality standards in Australia and they will be the standards that therefore apply to any training providers delivering Australian qualifications over here. We’re looking to lift the relevancy of training to jobs and to make sure the content of the training is as relevant as it possibly can be to the skill sets that an employer and an industry need. John and Tara who are here from the Australian Industry and Skills Committee, the newly established peak body put together by the States working with the Commonwealth, are tasked very much with that job of making sure that training packages and their content is as fit for purpose as possible for employers so that they know that when they go to hire somebody who’s got a qualification, that it comes with skills that are needed to do the job they’re seeking. Once again, as those qualifications are updated in Australia where they’re delivered here, we expect that they will be delivered to the latest standard that is most relevant and, again, a lot of discussions yesterday centred on how we can cooperate with the Chinese to make sure the development of those standards, of those training packages for particular qualifications are developed in a manner that ensures they’re getting the skills needed for work in China, just as for work in Australia, and ultimately that can lead to a greater framework of mutual recognition of those skills and qualifications being able transferrable where they are the Australian based ones, but even where China is delivering our qualifications under their own system.

So our opportunity today though, is really one hear particularly from Australian industry. On the trip so far, I’ve met with a lot of government officials, we’ve talked widely in terms of the policy settings and what that means and had the pleasure yesterday of visiting Huawei who are investing $30 million in a new training and development facility in Sydney. Tomorrow morning I’ll head out to the Shanghai Pharmaceutical School where the Box Hill TAFE have had a decade long relationship in delivering high quality training that leads to 98% employment outcomes for the graduates for that program out there, so a great example of Australian provision of training here. What I haven’t had the chance to do a lot of so far is hear from businesses, in particularly the Australian businesses, operating in China about where you see the opportunities for us, where you see the problems and the challenges that may exist, what we can do to improve our policy settings, what we should be pursuing in our discussions with the Chinese government, what ACPET representing the private training providers and TAFE directors representing the TAFE institutes should be going back and telling their members about how they engage with industry and how they engage the government in China to expand their opportunities and access for delivering training to Chinese students both in Australia and here in China. 

So today, please feel free to be frank and direct to identify as many of the issues as you see fit but of course, where possible please to offer up solutions and suggestions that can help us to make sure that the course we chart is one that gets good outcomes. As a government, we’re really serious about international education. We are developing Australia’s first strategic plan for international education. A draft is out there at present that anybody who wants to have a look at is still welcome to comment on. It’s been steered by under a whole of government approach that has brought together the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Trade, the Minister for Industry, the Assistant Minister for Immigration, Christopher Pyne and Myself. So, you can see the whole of government sense that’s behind that strategy because in the end, it’s our biggest services export, it’s our third largest export earner overall, so it’s critical economically but it’s critical in a far wider form as I said at the outset of my remarks. We’ve got half a dozen industry and education experts working with each of those Ministers on that approach and what we want to do, what I want to do particularly, is make sure that we strengthen the VET outcomes in that strategy and in underlining that strategy, of course, we have a range of very clear plans for countries like China to ensure we are as engaged as possible.

So thanks again for all you’re doing to expand Australia’s interest in this exciting part of the world, and thank you for what I’m sure will be some wonderful contributions today that help us to help, hopefully you, to get the skills you need to keep growing your business and growing opportunities here in China as well as at home in Australia. Thank you very much.