Speech to the Australia India Leadership Dialogue
07:30 PM

Simon Birmingham: … colleagues, the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister Senator James McGrath, the Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen, who I am [indistinct] to hearing from a little later this evening, the Member for Canberra Gai Brodtmann, former parliamentary colleague and esteemed former Minister for Trade Andrew Robb. Robbie, it’s great to see you again tonight. Former Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu. Ladies and gentlemen, wonderful to see all of you. Can I particularly acknowledge the traditional owners of Australia, and here in Melbourne the Kulin Nation, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present. I acknowledge of course those of you [inaudible] in the discussions you’ve had today, deliberation, and to strengthen of course the ties between Australia and India.

We often, in talking about ties between nations, spend a lot of time speaking of statistics. The trade numbers between different countries, the relative GDP per capita of different nations; all of the different types of economic statistics. But of course what makes for strong relations, incredibly strong relations between nations, are not just those statistics or those economic  and monetary links; they are of course human ties, human bonds. And such bonds are particularly established in a range of different ways and interactions. Here as we stand in the hallowed turf of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, sport of course naturally comes to mind as a way in which we strengthen the bonds between nations. And Australia and India have often come together in a spirit of fierce competition, but of course one of friendship as well. Indeed, cricket demonstrates the particularly strong links between our nations, as reflected through the choice of two former international cricketers as our respective education ambassadors, and I pay tribute to Adam Gilchrist as Australia's International Education Ambassador to India and Sachin Tendulkar for India in representing educational aspiration.

Of course education, the tides of education, the exchange and flow of students, of teachers and trainers again is a [inaudible] example of where we strengthen the human ties and the human bonds between nations to provide lasting benefits far beyond those pure economic factors. Both of those ambassadors we are proud to have as representatives of our countries, promoting the overwhelming opportunities that education can offer. It's a demonstration of our respective focus and commitment to education, which in Australia's case, in terms of our outreach to the nations of the world, but particularly within the regions that are closest to us is demonstrated and further evident through the establishment of our National Strategy for International Education.

We're seeking to recognise not only that which we already do really well as a country in terms of international education, but where we can improve, where we can deliver more, not just of benefit to Australia's education providers, but importantly of benefit to the students and the nations from whom those students come, to make sure that we are, where we're engaging as an education nation revision of high quality educational opportunities or services to students from other nations or the delivery of those educational training and opportunities in other nations, that we are doing so in a way that provides lasting benefits for those students, for those countries.

Much of that of course is of such importance in the Australia-India education relationship. We're seeking to bring together, with a firm focus on quality and the delivery of the best opportunities our higher education and university providers, our vocational and training providers, our schools and our English language providers working to make sure that across the board we're giving the best quality and best opportunity where we have those educational engagements.

We work to ensure that we identify the important issues that are barriers to the participation successfully of students from India who come to Australia, or of training providers from Australia going to India, and importantly are seeking to ensure that we maximise and enhance the two-way flow of students, because it is a true mutual exchange and a building of a better, stronger understanding across our nations.

Tonight, naturally enough as Education Minister, I want to focus quickly on a few of the education issues important to our two countries, the strong relationships we have built over time as well as the opportunities for future growth. Our main vehicle for education engagement is the Australia India Education Council, which I am pleased to co-chair with my counterpart, the Honourable Prakash Javadekar, Minister for Human Resources and Development. Through their four working groups, our countries look at areas of higher education and research, qualifications recognition and quality assurance, schools and skills to identify the key areas in which we can work together to achieve goals to the benefit of both our nations.

Australia does aspire to be a partner of choice to India in education, creating the knowledge and opportunities to help both of us make our countries stronger and more prosperous to the peoples of our nations. Through opportunities such as this, the Australia India Leadership Dialogue, we can bring together senior leaders from education, coupled with those from government, industry and business to discuss areas of mutual interest that will enable us to deepen that education cooperation that already exists. We're proud of having a particularly strong relationship through education with the Australia India Institute, which has coordinated this event. I want to congratulate the Institute on the work it does to bring together our nations in the educational research space.

I was recently told about the Drop-in Chai sessions that the Institute runs, which I understand are so popular you can have over 100 people turn up. And for those not in the know, the Institute hosts an open session at the University of Melbourne every fortnight where students, academics and even members of the public can stop by and enjoy a chat over a cup of chai and a few samosas. It's a great initiative for people to share their love of Indian culture, to learn and appreciate more about India, but of course to also get a greater appreciation of the opportunities that exist between our two nations and between the peoples of our nations.

I'm also delighted to welcome the announcement that the Australia India Institute, with the support of the Australian Government's Research Council, is planning to continue further studies especially on youth in India and the opportunities and pathways afforded to young people in India. This bodes incredibly well for Australia and India to build new connections between our countries, for our young people, especially in the education and training fields.

We’ve seen great vision shown by five Australian universities who are investing over $3 million in the Institute’s New Generation Network of 10 postdoctoral scholars across Australia to address challenges of smart cities, infrastructure, environmental change, and a number of other areas. International education continues to be a success story for Australia. In 2015, we welcomed around 640,000 students from around the world to Australia. [Inaudible – Around 10 per cent of these were from India, making India the second most popular country for arrivals, behind China. Enrolments from India are …] … particularly strong in higher education where around 60 per cent of [inaudible – Indian students coming to Australia to study at university level and around 35 per cent …] … studied across the vocational education and training sector. Others of course represented in our schools or through English language courses. [Inaudible – Most of the other students are at Australia schools or studying English language courses. I am proud to stay that the number of Indian students coming to Australia continues to increase over time, but student mobility is a two way street …] … and that we have been working successfully to increase the numbers of Australian students spending time in India.

Through initiatives such as our Government’s New Colombo Plan and the Endeavour Grants suite of awards and fellowships, we have seen growing numbers of two-way student mobility. The Endeavour scholarships program, beginning in 2007, has seen India receive the largest number of government-sponsored scholarships of any country supported under this program. Almost 700 Indian students equally have received Endeavour and Australia Award scholarships since that time. Given the competitiveness of the program, this shows the high quality of Indian students and academics interested in coming to Australia, as well as the strong interest of Australians seeking to travel to India. 

We can appreciate that these students and academics through those exchanges return home and recognise the benefits of both nations. Similarly, our New Colombo Plan has seen more Australians than ever travelling to India to study. A total of 560 undergraduate students will receive Government support under the New Colombo Plan in 2016 to undertake studies in India. These Australian students will bring their experiences and friendships they have gained during their time in India back to Australia, and it’s these people-to-people ties that strengthen not only our economic and business opportunities, but the opportunities for Government collaboration, cultural understanding, security cooperation across the whole suite of nation-to-nation cooperation required. In the future, we can have confidence that that type of two-way exchange in mobility enhances it.
But despite these impressive numbers, we don’t wish to rest on our laurels. We want to ensure Australia remains a country of choice for Indian students, and we hope we can continue to do this through the various scholarship schemes, as well as continuous work to enhance our high quality reputation. An area that helps maintain Australia’s reputation as a high quality destination is our research achievements and this is an area equally of enormous collaboration, two-way exchange between our two countries. Many strong links exist in research through initiatives such as the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund. Now in its tenth year, the Fund has supported more than 260 research projects in areas such as preventing, diagnosing and treating diseases, improving agricultural productivity, and new discoveries in astronomy. 

For example, the University of Western Australia, Panjab University and International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics are working on a joint project to address the issue of climate stresses on the growth of chickpeas. India is the world’s largest producer of chickpeas, producing nine million tons. Australia, though producing only one-ninth of that volume, is in fact the second largest producer in the world. So we have a significant shared interest. India of course also happens to be Australia’s largest chickpea export market, with up to 80 per cent of our one million tonnes exported to India. But chickpea production is being challenged and restricted by salinity and drought, doubly in India because of the intense heat. And this of course is a particular issue where chickpeas are a part of the staple diet.

This collaborative research project has identified certain chickpeas that are more stress-tolerant. Identification of these breeds and these types of chickpeas has of course the potential to benefit future legume production in both [inaudible – countries in a time of changing climate …] … with the type of stresses in food production that we face. Agriculture is a key area of research engagement between our countries and we were very pleased to see that as part of its 2016-17 budget, the Indian Government announced it would increase support for India’s agriculture research sector. This will allow for further collaboration between our education providers which will lead to mutual benefits for both nations.

Beyond a focus on research or on universities, Australia deeply values its close and productive bilateral skills relationship with India. Both our nations share much in common with skills collaborations has been one of the most successful aspects of the bilateral relationship. We appreciate that with such a young population, India faces both an opportunity and a very formidable challenge to expand the capacity and quality of the skills training sector. The Indian Government's target of skilling 400 million people by 2022 is impressive, but mind-blowing by Australian standards. The efforts of the Indian Government and industry have already contributed to strengthening key aspects of India’s training system and we’re confident that there is scope for Australia to contribute to both the Skill India and the Make in India initiatives in the future.

We are well-placed to work in building India’s capacity to meet its enormous training demand. Australian vocational education is internationally recognised for its unique qualification structure, industry-focused training, all of which lead to high employability outcomes. We have been delighted to see that Australia’s Kangan Institute is working with India’s Government of Gujarat and Maruti Suzuki to build India’s first international Automobile Centre of Excellence. This new automotive training centre will replicate the Kangan Institute – from here in Melbourne – their model of training work-ready candidates for automotive jobs, bringing together industry, government and providers. 

In a bilateral sense, we’re also doing substantial work with India on the development of international occupational standards to support greater shared understanding of skills and mobility in skills for industry across country borders. Also supporting the training of trainers and assessors, and supporting the development of vocational education and training research capacity as part of India’s Sector Skill Councils. Public and private training organisations from Queensland have also formed a consortium to deliver skills training in the state of Kerala in a variety of trades. Another consortia model aiming to meet India’s requirement of skilling at scale, with speed and quality, bringing together Australian providers with Indian providers. We’re providing support for how it is India can better engage industry in the development of recognised qualifications and the meeting of regulatory requirements. Many international students come to Australia to study accredited vocational training courses here, and increasingly, some Australian qualifications are being delivered offshore in India. 

Other approaches to skills training have also been trialled to assist in meeting international market needs, such as the international training and assessment courses; an example of the Australian Government and Australian providers working with Indian partners to build the skills and capabilities that vocational education trainers and assessors. This has been piloted with over 300 learners from eight countries participating. As we seek to broaden skills engagement with India, we are eager to collaborate, work closely with industry, the training sector and government, to explore innovative and creative ways to realise the potential for increased skills partnership. 

Next year, I am optimistic that an Australian skills delegation will visit India to participate in the fourth India Australia Skills Conference, the pre-eminent skills engagement activity between our nations. Such a visit would be an important opportunity to help increase industry and business linkages in our vocational education sector and pursue opportunities for growth offshore, online and through new consortia partnerships and use of technology. There’s tremendous potential for our skills collaboration to deepen and broaden across a range of sectors. 

We’re also working on the development – launched in 2015 – of the Australia-Asia Building Regional Intercultural Dialogue and Growing Engagement Program, happily more commonly referred to as BRIDGE, which connects Australian, teachers, students and school communities, particularly with their peers in India, which is where former minister Christopher Pyne launched the program in 2015. The program is designed to provide new ways to connect and support Australian and Indian schools in identifying areas of common interest that can build and sustain collaboration. Through the use of international school partnerships, BRIDGE links our two countries at a young level, and builds sustainable school partnerships and a community of learners. It also provides opportunities for teacher and student exchanges and I’m pleased that schools in South Australia – my home state – New South Wales and Victoria have been involved in hosting exchanges with schools from Delhi already.

The Australian Government looks forward to building on this practical cooperation as we expand our policy dialogue with India on schools and as we both deal with challenges of how to improve student outcomes. We [indistinct] briefing(*) announcement, committed to taking the development of educational opportunities and language exchange one step further, targeting students at pre-school level in language learning. 

Our Government has pioneered the Early Learning Languages Australia program, providing early and easy access to foreign languages in a preschool setting, and we announced recently we’ll be expanded beyond the existing five languages that it covers to nine languages from 2018, including Hindi. This is a great way to allow young children to engage with Indian language, but importantly culture and to develop new interest and curiosity from a very early age. 

Our education relationship is incredibly strong and rich already, but we believe that we can make it even stronger. Prime Ministers Turnbull and Modi met in the margins at the September 2016 East Asia Summit meeting in Laos and agreed to establish a joint taskforce to increase cooperation in education and expand the presence of Australian universities and vocational education providers in India and vice versa. Shortly we’ll be releasing a concept note that sets out the broader scope of the taskforce, encompassing all levels of tertiary education, noting the prospect of new market opportunities in India for Australian vocational providers and Australia’s comparative advantage in helping in skills development and training. This approach may allow Australia to work with India to reduce market barriers to all Australian tertiary providers wishing to operate in India and is in line with India’s goal to up-skill its workforce. 

Personally, I’ve sadly not yet had the opportunity to travel to India in my role as Minister for Education and Training, but I am hopeful that an opportunity will be presented during my tenure. In fact, I’m optimistic that that will be the case next year. I’m confident that through all we are doing, across higher education, university, research, skills training schools and into early education, that we can continue to open doors to great collaborations between our countries which will help to grow an already strong relationship, which will help to boost all of those statistics that we measure our relationships on, of which will more equitably ensure, that in the years and generations to come, we have even stronger person-to-person ties across our nations that will only help to boost the relationship and the success of it even further in the future. 

Thank you so much for the work that you are doing in building and strengthening our relations and for the commitment you’ve showed by participating in forums like this. I wish you every success in your discussion and a wonderful evening. Thanks for the chance to be with you.