Subject: (International Education)


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thank you very much for coming along for a chat this afternoon. I'm happy to say a few words if you'd like to start with, and then we can take any questions from there.

This is my first overseas trip as Australia's Assistant Minister for Education and Training, a position I was appointed to at the end of last year with dedicated responsibilities for vocational education and training; and the fact that China is the first destination that I’ve visited is a demonstration of the importance we place on our education relationship with China, and our desire to continue to strengthen that relationship in the years ahead.

More broadly, it is building upon very strong government to government and country to country relationship that Australia and China have. It's been cemented by multiple visits of our Prime Minister Tony Abbott to China since his election in 2013, and by President Xi's very successful visit to Australia last year.

We have wonderful relations with China that of course were particularly highlighted with the signing of the China-Australia free trade agreement, but are also exceptional in the education space where we have had a long-standing relationship of mutual cooperation and of educating each other's citizens.

Around 150,000 Chinese study in Australia whilst we have many Chinese- many Australian training providers providing education here in China, with around 35,000 Chinese educated by Australian training providers here in China. This however is complemented by the fact that thousands of Australians come here to China to study, and we have two-way exchanges for our teachers and trainers to enhance the mutual understanding of one-another's approaches to teaching and learning.

My visit for these few days to Shanghai and Beijing is designed to strengthen our education ties, especially in relation to vocational education and training and skills development, where we see enormous opportunity to work further with China in relation to mutual skills recognition, the training of people in vocation trades and qualifications, and lifting skills to meet the changing requirements of both of our economies, particularly in relation to new technologies and new skills that will be required in future jobs.

Today I've had the pleasure of meeting with Vice-Minister Hao Ping from the Ministry of Education, Vice-Minister Tang Tao from the Minister of Human Resources, and in those discussions we have advanced the opportunities for China and Australia to collaborate in terms of the development of qualifications, the recognition of those qualifications, the involvement of employers and enterprise and industry in ensuring qualifications are fit for purpose and relevant to jobs, and ensuring the highest quality of training that is provided, especially by those Australian operators providing training in China.

Vice-Minister Hao and I had the pleasure this morning of jointly opening the China Australia Vocational Education and Training Strategic Policy Dialogue, which brought together officials from both our governments, policy leaders and leaders of industry to discuss ways in which we can collaborate, in which we can enhance opportunities for industry and enterprise-based training, and ensure the future relevancy of the qualifications and training that is undertaken.

I'm very pleased that out of those discussions two documents have been signed, one between our Ministries of Education, which we hope will lead to the development of a memorandum of understanding between our nations in relation to cooperation on vocational education and training, and the other by the head of our national quality regulator for training with his Chinese counterparts, which will hopefully enable us to work together to ensure the highest quality of training delivery here in China by Australian training providers.

We are also seeing some exceptional examples of mutual investment in each other nations training capacity. Today I visited Huawei, who are investing in a new training development facility in Sydney in Australia, and tomorrow I look forward to visiting the Shanghai Pharmaceutical School, which is run and has been run successful for a decade by the Box Hill TAFE from Australia, providing very high rates, around 98 per cent, of employment for its graduates in the critical pharmaceuticals industry.

So we are very positive that in an era of increased student mobility and labour mobility we will be able to strengthen the ties of our nations, enhance our ability to cooperate on skills delivery and training, and through that not only enhance each of our economies but also our mutual understanding and cultural understand of one another.


JOURNALIST: [Translated from Chinese] We are media focused on international education, so our questions in relation to the document or agreement that the two countries have signed towards mutually recognising qualifications in schools. So… but we do have somewhat different education and training systems between Australia and China, and if a Chinese student is vocationally trained in China how would his qualifications be recognised in Australia? How would his qualification be used to match to the system in Australia, and what difficulties are there in this effort?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks. Minister Tong and I in particular had discussions about mutual recognition of skills, and I emphasized to him that it was going to be important, as always in mutual recognition, that both parties had confidence that the skills were of complimentary standards and of all relevant competencies to match each other's qualifications.

But with that we were very open to working with China to explore priority occupations that we might be able to advance recognition on. It is particularly beneficial where training is provided by – via Australian qualifications, which occurs in many cases already, and of course in those instances they are Australian qualifications that are recognised in Australia, and hopefully by working together as we have been on the design of qualifications we can make as easy as possible the pathway for mutual recognition of those qualifications.

JOURNALIST: [Translated from Chinese] Many countries have their own vocational training systems, for example Germany is famous for its apprentice system, and I have read about Australia's emphasis on the apprentice mechanism as well. So are you moving towards that, evolving from an earlier different system? Could you maybe give us an outline of the current system, and any potential future model?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Apprentices have always been a very important component of Australia's vocational education and training system and will remain so into the future, and we are certainly working to strengthen them. But more importantly we are working to strengthen our overall vocational education and training system.

Our system is based on nationally recognised qualifications that are developed and informed by clearly described skill sets or competencies that those who earn those qualifications must have demonstrated to be able to achieve that qualification. Whether that's through an apprenticeship, or through other forms of training that are provided.

A particular focus of our current reforms in our domestic training environment, which is complimentary to the discussions we're having in China, is about industry and employer involvement in the design of that training, and ensuring that those who will be using the skilled workforce are informing the training that is required for that skilled work force.

JOURNALIST: [Translated from Chinese] A final question from me, when a Chinese student has taken Australian training programs what's the path leading from that for them generally? Can they expect to work in the Australian market, or can they expect to work in China, or can they expect to take further education and training? Do you have numbers of these different paths' proportions?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  All of those avenues are potentially open to some extent. We have certain work rights available to students who have studied in Australia, and that is about helping to provide employment experience, as well as the training experience that is being achieved. But generally where students have studied in Australia the expectation is they will ultimately return to their own country to work in the long run, but not everyone does, just as some Australians who study in China will stay and work in different roles.

JOURNALIST: [Translated from Chinese] We are particularly interested in overseas studies and immigration, so from that angle we know that a lot of our Chinese students love going to Australia to study, but still Australia trails behind the US and Canada as their favourite destination. We have seen a report saying that under the previous Government revenue from international students in Australia dropped from US$19 billion to US$15 billion.

I wonder if the current government has measures in place, or a plan to boost their revenue, to boost overseas students' attendance in Australian institutions. And if you have any plan to help Australia become a choice – a favourite choice over the US and Canada, and so how do you differentiate yourself as a market?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We have and we do. We have successfully implemented a number of reforms, including to some of our visa arrangements, and the status of and recognition of certain training providers since our election in 2013, and this has seen a significant recovery in the numbers of international students to Australia in that time.

We hope to continue to enhance the positioning of Australia as a preferred nation, and are very pleased that under the free trade agreement signed with China, more Australian education and training providers will be listed as, and I forget the exact term, but as preferred providers on official Chinese Ministry websites that help to encourage and enable students from China to study with those education providers.

Important though international education is as an economic contributor to Australia, and committed though we are to growing it, for that reason we are equally committed to international education for much broader reasons, which is why, as a government, we have implemented policies to help and encourage more students from Australia to study in China, because we recognise that international education provides benefits in addition to the economic dividend by strengthening the cultural understanding of each other's nations, and strengthening that mutual cooperation that will filter through all areas of business links, economic links, and even security ties and political ties in years to come.

So there's the study abroad website, which will list an additional 77 Australian education providers on it, and Rex can give you that address.

JOURNALIST: [Translated from Chinese] You mentioned that at least some of the Chinese students who have received training in Australia will have the opportunity to gain employment in Australia. How would you balance the entry into workforce by Australian local students and overseas students?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So the work rights attached to student visas are for a defined period of time. It's not a permanent right of residency or of work. Our revenues for permanent migration or permanent work rights are separate visa categories that are clearly defined. Obviously, we are conscious of balancing those domestic pressures with a desire to have a strong international education market, but we are quite conscious that for the reasons in your previous question, the economic contribution that international education makes is significant, and that overall, the benefits to Australia economically, culturally and socially are much greater by having international students coming to Australia and making the various contributions and that they dramatically enrich the experience of those from Australia and those from other nations who are studying alongside them.

JOURNALIST: [Translated from Chinese] And the final question is more related to immigration. One of the reasons that Chinese students tend often to choose Australia to study is the relative ease of gaining access to permanent residency in Australia, particularly through the skilled immigration category. But from July 1st, a new list of occupations, professions that qualify one for skilled immigration, I see that a few professions, a few skills have been dropped from the list, and I have read in, from the public domain, that you have personally made suggestions to changes to the design of the immigration system, skilled immigration. I wonder if you could explain this federal, the Australian federal government's stance on this type of immigration?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Our skilled immigration list is informed by the, by an analysis of our employment and labour market that seeks to assist where we have skills deficiencies within the population, and that helps to then inform the decision-making around what occupations should or should not be on that list. The approach to it, therefore, is very much one of identifying skills and occupations that are in need.

The changes made to the list from year to year are usually relatively minor, and I think in the case of this year there were just a handful of occupations that were removed from the list, and possibly just one or two that were added to the list from my recollection. But it is very much based on that assessment of the labour market and employer needs, and is reviewed and informed by both our education and employment departments before the final decision is taken by the Ministry of Immigration.

I would also add in relation to the attractiveness of Australia as a destination for international students that in addition to our visa changes and other- visa changes and new approaches to encourage and facilitate training providers and education institutions to again receive more international students, the other big change that should be of appeal to many is the change in the exchange rate to Australia. That means our depreciated currency makes it somewhat cheaper for people to be able to travel and stay and of course pay for their courses.

And lastly that we have further visa changes underway with streamlined visa processing applying in a number of instances from July 1 next year which will be yet another boost and encouragement for people and make it easier for students.

JOURNALIST: [Translated from Chinese] So did you say it's going to be July 5 next year?


JOURNALIST: [Translated from Chinese] I went to the website of the economy daily newspaper, Economics Daily Newspaper sorry. My question is more about macro policies. Assistant Minister Michaelia Cash was here on July 1 and she announced at the Australian embassy that the work and holiday visa scheme will come into effect in September of Chinese young people, which means we believe Chinese youths will be able to travel to Australia from September to holiday and study and work at the same time. Now if they are permitted to study while they are in Australia on this visa, what kind of studies are they permitted to undertake? And do you foresee any similar categories of visa coming into force for Chinese [indistinct]?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: In relation to the specifics there of what type of studies they might be able to undertake under the changes to the Working Holiday Visa, they're probably questions that I would have to take on notice and come back to you. We obviously have long established visa mechanisms for people to live and study in Australia, and linked to those are some of the post-study work rights that I discussed before. The Working Holiday Visa arrangements are likely to be slightly more restrictive in terms of the extent of study or duration of timeline that somebody might be in the country for, but exactly the timeframe there: I'd have to check with my immigration counterpart, Minister Cash.

We can attempt to get some information for you and email that through, or … thank you.

JOURNALIST: [Translated from Chinese] So Australia is a leading nation when it comes to education exports. So after the signing of the FTA, how are the two countries going to be enabled to strengthen their cooperation in education, especially VET?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  As I flagged before in the discussions, a number of around 67 additional Australian providers will be listed, which provides greater incentive and encouragement and ease of access for student to utilise their services.

But a visit such as this one is about taking the opportunities provided by the free trade agreement and the strength of the current relationship to a new level and opening up discussions on how we can increase that exchange of students between our nations, and exchange the provision of training services by providers from each other's nations into the future. And our ambition is that this visit is laying the groundwork for future discussions which will be picked up in particular in November this year when a joint working group of officials between Australia and China meets to further conversations in Sydney.

In that November meeting we'll hopefully be in a position to finalise the memorandum of understanding that we aim to develop around cooperation on vocational education and training, whilst hopefully by then our regulators work with his Chinese counterpart will be well enough advanced that we're also to demonstrate very clearly that Australian training providers operating in China are applying the same high levels in the standards and delivery of qualifications as we expected them to be doing in Australia.

JOURNALIST: [Translated from Chinese] You have already answered some of my questions when you answered the earlier questions.

Thank you for your time.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  Thank you Ms Wongs.


It's been a pleasure, and certainly if there are any particular facts or figures you need to follow up with then our officials from the embassy will be only too happy to help with those bits of information.