Speech to Council of International Students Australia Conference
04 July 2017

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much for that welcome. Good morning everybody and, as I said on my way in, please keep eating your breakfast. Nobody wants cold scrambled eggs at the end of my presentation, so far better to enjoy them during my remarks.

Can I also begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people – the fact that I may or may not be driving a slideshow accidentally here as well – acknowledging the traditional owners of this land, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and all of Australia’s Indigenous peoples for their contribution to our knowledge and culture which we continue to grow together as a country.

Can I also acknowledge all of those in the leadership of the Council of International Students Australia, and it’s wonderful to accept this invitation to be with you all today, to be here as indeed the first federal minister speaking at a CISA conference, and to hear just some of your stories – all of which are unique. They are of course diverse in terms of what brought you to Australia, the hopes, the dreams, the ambitions, the decisions you’ve made, and of course some of the challenges and opportunities you faced while being here.

International education is now very, very important to Australia, and that’s the core part of the reason why I’m so thrilled to be able to join you all today, to acknowledge your significance to Australia. As is reflected in the theme of this conference, international students are at the heart of best practice across our education and training landscape.

In what was our biggest year so far in 2016, there were around 550,000 students who came and studied here in Australia on a student visa, along with at least 50,000 more students studying in Australia on other types of visitor visas. That means – to give it some sense of context – when you walk down the street in Australia, when you go into a restaurant, when you go into a shopping centre, around one in 50 people could potentially be an international student at a given point in time. That’s a staggering figure when you think about moving through the population of Australia and the scale and numbers of people who have chosen to come and train and study here.

The scale of impact on our society, on our culture, is something that we are very proud of, that we embrace as a country, and that we want to make sure that that sense of openness to the world is something that we continue to build upon. From the figures available so far in 2017, it appears as if we will welcome an even larger number of students this year. But the numbers alone – just statistics – barely begin to demonstrate the scale of the impact that you and your peers have on our campuses, our communities, and our daily life.

Australia strives to be open to the world and recognises the contribution that our many visitors make to this country. Of course, all of that comes with challenges and responsibilities, as well as opportunities. Our government is working hard to make sure we manage those challenges, are true to dealing with the responsibilities, and seize the opportunities that come with welcoming such significant numbers of international students.

We aim to be, and are proud of being, a global leader in quality education, training and research, while also ensuring that Australian students seize opportunities to engage overseas. International students make a vital contribution to these endeavours through your own sharing of your other international study experiences, and your sharing of those with us and your feedback on the quality of the teaching and the support services that are provided to you helps, of course, to inform our education and training providers and the students you study alongside of.

We know there are a lot of choices out there, that as students of the world you are spoiled for choice. Globally, around 5 million tertiary students are currently studying outside of their home country. UNESCO estimates this number will increase to around 8 million by 2025. And we also know that you are our best ambassadors for studying in Australia. Foreign students studying in Australia and alumni are plugged in to the social media streams and day-to-day conversations of their friends and family back home.

A practical example of how this already impacts the international education sector is confirmed by research that shows friends and family already studying in Australia are a key source of information for prospective students considering undertaking a qualification overseas – the historical notion of word-of-mouth marketing that you all exemplify with your colleagues in the way that you communicate back home. But now, of course, it’s no longer just a case of the people you see when you get back home, but the opportunities and the practicalities through those social media streams as you share your day-to-day life here in Australia and the experiences that you have.

Our government has made a priority of reviewing all of our foreign policy settings, and we know very well the strong role of education in helping other countries to grow and the benefits that come from building close ties in education, research, and business. We know and we view international education very much as a two way street. We’re proud of the fact we’re creating more opportunities for more Australian students to engage on the world stage, to leave Australia and to study offshore themselves as well.

Whenever I sit down with international governments to talk to them about the engagement we have on international education and the opportunities for their students to study in Australia, they want to hear that Australians are also studying in their nations. The New Colombo Plan – a signature initiative of our government – is making an enormous difference to perceptions in our region about the outward-facing nature of Australia and our ongoing commitment to global engagement on a mutually respectful basis.

In the first four years of the program, the Australian Government has supported more than 17,000 students to study overseas, specifically in the Indo-Pacific region. The work that our Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in particular has done through this initiative has shown that Australia recognises that all countries benefit from enhanced international linkages and the need for domestic students to reach out to the world. Our ambition is to build those strong linkages around the globe, that provide exceptional opportunities for individuals, for the organisations they study and work with, and for the countries they call home.

Our international students, both the Australians heading out and those thousands like you coming to Australia, are a fundamental part of achieving, and living, those ambitions. Australia has been very successful in offering a high-quality education system that has attracted students at all levels. Just in mixing and mingling with you before, I encountered students studying in our quality and high-quality vocational education sector, students at our universities and higher education providers, undertaking both undergraduate and postgraduate studies, as well as students engaging in important English language education.

We are very proud to be the third most popular destination for international students behind the United States and the United Kingdom, but we know that we cannot afford to be complacent. We need to focus on those issues that you, your peers, have raised as the types of things that as a nation we could be doing better. Things like better engagement with the Australian community, things that make the overall experience of studying in Australia, as well as your academic experience, even better. We need to recognise and strive to improve the full experience of living, studying and, often, working, in another country.

The continuing growth in international students wanting to come to Australia is a very positive sign and it means we know we need to keep working very hard to keep doing those things that make us an attractive and appealing destination, that provide a high quality education and training experience that makes us successful. But we also must, through discussions like those that you’re having here, focus on what else we can do to improve our educational offerings in the future.

That’s why our government undertook the National Strategy for International Education 2025, which we released last year. It’s an essential document intended to give structure to our plans to help you and those who come after you. It sets out the framework upon which we are building the actions that give effect to the clear direction and ambition in international education.

The National Strategy rightly recognises that Australia does many things very, very well already – after all, that’s the reason many of you are here – and that we must keep doing so. But it also identifies areas where there are other things we can do to improve the education opportunities we offer, to innovate, to provide better experiences for international students than other countries do.

This means federal government, together with the state and territory governments, local governments, the international education sector, quality training and education providers, must have open and active ways of talking to each other that help us to respond to changing situations and addresses issues that arise, and to do so quickly.

One way in which we do that is to talk to each other via the Council for International Education, which oversees this National Strategy. The Council, which I’m proud to chair, works with education providers, industry, federal, state, and territory governments to ensure the sector continues to play a key role in driving Australia’s future economic growth, our global engagement, and innovation across all of the different fields of education and training. Council members are drawn from across the spectrum of international education, and include the President of CISA, to ensure that there is a direct voice there for international students on a body that includes senior government ministers, education providers, and different peak organisations.

Since I announced the membership of the Council in October last year, it has met a number of times, providing advice on ways to enhance international education across all sectors, including university, vocational education and training, school education, and English language education. It has also agreed on four priority themes including: how we can provide a nationally-consistent approach to marketing and branding of international education; the need to ensure the benefits of international education are effectively communicated to the wider Australian community; how we can enhance international cooperation through in-country work, through research collaboration, through two-way mobility and transnational education, which may be of perhaps particular interest to many of you; and how we can provide the best possible student experience, including developing employability skills and regional engagement.

The Council will be meeting in Canberra concurrently with this conference to discuss the priority theme of student experience. The Australian Government also plans with state and territory governments to better the experiences of international students. My state and territory colleagues know the fantastic qualities that a vibrant international education sector brings to their communities, to the different cities and regional locations of Australia. It boosts those communities, economies and culture, and most of course have developed their own strategies to provide better, enhanced experiences and opportunities for international students.

We want to work together across the country to plan and coordinate our efforts to get the best outcomes for everyone. One of the more tangible things that governments can sometimes do is to provide a little financial assistance. I’m thrilled that we were able to assist with the funding of this conference, recognising the importance of a place and a time where you – as engaged leaders in international education – can come together and discuss the issues of importance to international students, to agree on future directions, and consider new opportunities. Some of those opportunities may include partnerships across the wider Australian economy.

We recognise that we need to ensure we have strong ties with business, industry, and employers. I can’t stress enough the significance of the relationships we have built, and are building, with Australia’s leading business representative bodies. Business understands the need to play their role by providing constructive work experience and placement opportunities, including for international students. They understand that international students also contribute to their business objectives through building positive international relationships and global networks that will last long after the work placement has been completed.

As the world of work changes, these global connections will be critical to workforce mobility and global prosperity. Entrepreneurial graduates, both international and domestic students, will be the ones creating innovative businesses and jobs with more and more diverse opportunities than ever before. The connections we foster today between education, business and industry, through alumni networks, through work placement opportunities, will strengthen the overall quality of our education and training system, will boost the economies of Australia and countries within our region around the world, and it will lift industry and businesses overall, as well as, of course, helping the individual futures of you, the international students.

To drive delivery of quality higher education and support to which support informed student choice, prospective students require transparent and comparable information about institution and course quality, and graduate employment outcomes. Ultimately, of course, quality education and training is the first and most important fundamental that we must get right and continue to get right. That’s why as a Government we are progressing a transparency agenda through the Quality Indicators in Learning and Teaching website, which is being redeveloped in 2018.

This redevelopment will help to ensure that all students have user-friendly, easy-to-access information to help them make the right choices. We are currently undertaking research to ensure the new website will be easy to recognise and navigate. We are working with the Australian Tax Office to develop graduate income data to help provide even better information for prospective students about the outcomes of different qualifications at different institutions, and this data we expect will be published in 2018.

As you all well know, international education develops skills and knowledge, builds enduring friendships, fosters country and professional links, and has the power to influence positive change. Country-to-country relationships have an extraordinary power to bring positive outcomes even beyond what might have originally been expected. I recently visited India, and it was very clear that both countries want to nurture and grow meaningful people-to-people relationships, which broaden our horizons and bring us closer together.

Many Australian students undertake placements in India, some through different government scholarship programs and many more through programs organised by their universities. And, of course, Australia last year was honoured to host

contribution to their home countries as leaders in their field. A positive educational experience gives students the skills to contribute meaningfully to the economic and social development goals of their nation.

China – another important education partner for Australia, which I had the pleasure of visiting last year – ensures that it is a big partner across the higher education, TAFE and English language sectors. A very large number of Chinese students choose to undertake some or all of their study in Australia, and I am very pleased that many Australian students increasingly are now choosing to undertake study experiences in China.

Under the 2017 round of the New Colombo Mobility Plan, China was the most popular host location, with around 1200 grants to support Australian undergraduates to study and undertake internships in China. This two-way exchange of students is a priority for the Australian Government and is something that I will further encourage when I visit China later this year.

I also look forward to visiting Vietnam as part of that trip. A country in transition; a country focused on the need for a skilled workforce to sustain recent economic growth, and Australia is in an ideal place to offer our expertise to help. We already have a strong bilateral relationship with Vietnam and are keen to grow this through advanced engagement. Areas we can work together include supporting their goals to improve the quality of teachers, the uptake of vocational education, expanding university autonomy, and increasing the use of ICT in all levels of education.

Closer to home, we are also looking to make sure that we look for solutions to address issues of concern to international students from all source countries. Recognising that it is not just people from within our region, but of course, people from right around the globe who choose to come and pursue opportunities in Australia. Those issues, like access to quality accommodation and student support, are very important.

I’d like to highlight the great results contained in the 2016 International Student Survey where over 65,000 international students participated in an investigation of their study and living experiences in Australia, and 89 per cent indicated they were satisfied or very satisfied with their overall experience. This is the highest satisfaction score we’ve received or achieved since 2010, and a sign that clearly we are all collectively getting some things right. But again, we can never afford to rest on our laurels.

A key part of the work that is occurring under the National Strategy is to focus on your student experience, which includes – as I said before – opportunities to gain work experience or placement in Australia, but also, finding safe and affordable accommodation and having a genuine international study experience through getting to know both Australian students and students from other countries who choose to come here. And we want to make sure that once you return home, that should not be the end of your Australian experience – we certainly hope not.

We hope you become Australian ambassadors abroad and we are acutely aware of the old saying that someone who has a good experience will tell their friends; but that someone who has a bad experience will tell everybody. Australian alumni are spread throughout the world and we want to ensure we build strong, positive and enduring connections with them. Because your work, your role, when you return either to your home countries or to other countries and work is that you will forge, ultimately, stronger ties across business and industry, across government and society, across foreign affairs and diplomacy, across fields of security; strengthen, of course, your nations – our nation – by doing so. We know that we best achieve that through the maintenance of positive connections, through building networks which celebrate and support alumni success.

I look forward to continuing to work with CISA to help our government build Australia’s ability to provide fantastic experiences for international students. We fundamentally support the theme of this conference, that students should be at the heart of best practices, and we look forward to working with you to keep Australia a strong and attractive destination; to provide you with exceptional opportunities that you deserve; to hold our education and training providers accountable for ensuring that you are at the heart of best practice in each of their institutions; that you do get the best and highest quality education and training. And I really look forward to hearing some of the outcomes from your discussions over the next four days to ensure that they provide us – the Council for International Education – with the type of informed feedback from students that can enable us to make the best possible policy decisions for the future.

Thanks so much and all the best.