I welcome this opportunity to speak with the international education community so early in my term as Federal Minister for Education.
This conference provides a valuable collective voice for that community, and I am keen to hear a great many more of your views.
Let me assure you that I absolutely recognise the importance of international and higher education to the nation.
Though many have tried to do so, no-one can overlook international education’s value in all its many forms, to the Australian economy and the development of our vital international networks.
One of the Coalition’s key priorities will be restoring international education to its rightful place as one of our most valuable exports.
The International Education Association of Australia, TAFE Directors Australia, Australian Council for Private Education and Training, IDP Education and English Australia issued a joint statement in 2010 citing an Allen’s Consulting Group report which suggested that higher education, intensive language and vocational education and training amounted to $18.6 billion in exports in 2009.
But under Labor we saw this vital export income from international education drop to just over $14 billion in 2012 based on the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data.
Rebuilding the sector is essential and part of the Coalition’s plan to build a world-class 5-pillar economy. It’s a core part of our real solutions election policy.
I know you’ve had it tough.
Under the first term of the Rudd Government, a series of events occurred that impacted upon, and in some cases, seriously damaged Australia’s international education reputation.
A number of unscrupulous education and training providers collapsed and closed their doors, leaving thousands of international students stranded in Australia not knowing if their tuition fees could be refunded.
It happened simultaneously with a tragic series of attacks on young people working or studying in Australia which attracted significant media attention, particularly in Victoria and key locations offshore.
While this was handled well, the entire education sector became caught up, and, much like Labor’s reaction to the live cattle export fiasco, the Labor Government over reacted on the issue of student visas.
Labor rushed through student visa changes in 2009 and 2010 that substantially raised financial requirements. They made visa fees much higher. And there was little clarity about what the new plan really was.
It was like using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut and the whole education industry was damaged.
The mismanagement of changes to visas wounded an already fragile industry at a time when the high Australian dollar was dramatically starting to impact on student numbers.
The changes to visas coincided with the former member for Cook, Bruce Baird, being engaged to provide advice on how the regulatory environment for education providers offering services to overseas students could be improved.
Changes were certainly needed to weed out a number of poor providers, and most of the Baird review recommendations were implemented with the support of the Coalition.
A series of changes passed the parliament under the former Government that enhanced registration requirements for providers and tuition protection for students. But it wasn’t well handled and it all fed a sense of rapid change and uncertainty for the education sector.
So by 2010 international education was in free fall, with student numbers dropping dramatically.
In response to growing concern from the higher education sector, former Sydney Olympics Minister Michael Knight was asked to examine the issues of student visas. He reported to Government in 2011.
There were two major recommendations, both of which were welcomed by the Coalition.
First, a new streamlined visa processing arrangement, for international students in selected courses at universities, was recommended to ensure a less onerous process for key applicants.
Second, post study work visas of between two and four years were recommended for students with a bachelor degree and above.
Labor took nearly 18 months to implement new post study work visa arrangements. These arrangements should have been implemented immediately, to support Australia remaining competitive in the global international student market.
Teething issues also emerged following the implementation of new ‘general temporary entrance’ student visa criteria.
Streamlining arrangements were not made available to other low risk providers who have a long history of delivering quality education to foreign and domestic students so they did not benefit from the change.
Numerous complaints from higher education providers about extensive delays to visa processing times were received. Some students were being denied a student visa simply because they indicated on application forms that they aspired one day to apply for permanent residency through the skilled migration programme.
The Coalition raised our concerns in a number of representations with the former Government following the Knight review, hoping the then Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen would address the issues that were raised.
Alas, that didn’t happen, instead Labor continued to ignore this critical industry, and there were significant job losses in a vital employment area.
Earlier this year, another report into international education, the Chaney Council Report was released. One of the recommendations was to address the ongoing issues with the general ‘temporary entrance’ visa test, the very same issue the Coalition had warned the former Government about some twelve months earlier.
The former Government’s incompetence in this area would only have continued had they been re-elected.
But they were not. So, to the future.
The new Government will make it a priority to finalise the list of non-university providers to be offered the streamlined visa arrangement.
This will be an important first step in moving on one of the recommendations in the Chaney Report, also agreed by the Council of Australian Governments last year, which is to extend streamlined visa processing to providers where there is a low immigration risk.
I anticipate I will have more to say about this very shortly.
As another early step, we will also respond fully to the Chaney Report.
The report gave comprehensive and considered advice on the challenges and opportunities for international education.
The government will draw on this advice to develop a national strategy for international education, something that has been sorely needed for a long time.
We will deliver a clear strategy, one that lays out a path to growing a world-class education and research industry, that realises our economic potential, reduces barriers and frees the sector to be more productive and globally competitive.
A strategy that will repair international education, deepen our engagement with Asia and complement the New Colombo Plan.
As a priority I will be consulting with my Cabinet colleagues to finalise the strategy, working in close collaboration with the sector. You can be certain of that. There will be no more thought bubbles and over-reactions.
Our Government will also give priority to reviewing post-study work rights to bring about clearer and more appropriate rules that maximise opportunities for graduates to convert world-leading qualifications to meaningful, needed careers.
Post-study work rights not only facilitate participation in the global market, but build a strong foundation for relationships with international students and graduates and their home country institutions, their governments and future employers.
It’s all part of sending a message to students and their families across the Asia-Pacific and beyond that Australia welcomes, and is well placed, to host many more international students.
This Government will also seek to reverse the broad public perception which emerged under Labor that somehow foreign students must be prevented from getting a student visa on the basis they might one day aspire to live permanently in our great country.
Many students want to go home after they complete study – they have no interest in staying. They want to make a contribution in their own countries, aided by their quality Australian education.
But other students, those that study here, gain an Australian qualification, make friends, bring their family out to visit, participate in, and are able to contribute to our society by filling an area of genuine workforce shortage. They are exactly the kind of people we want, and should want, at the front of our migration list – not at the end.
We will work hard to reverse the damage that has been inflicted on international education through reactive policy, or the delayed implementation of sound policy.
And only a Coalition Government can be trusted to deliver that.
Right across the portfolios of the incoming government, we are adopting fresh, responsive, and practical new approaches.
The people of Australia have elected a new government and you can expect us to implement our new policy directions.
Rebuilding Australian international education is one area in which you can expect a concerted and consultative effort.
This is the time to begin building the new architecture that will sustain the international education sector through decades of future growth. An export industry not only to be proud of, but sure of.
Prime Minister Abbott’s recent visit to Indonesia highlighted the paradox of our location in the Asia-Pacific and, perhaps with the exception of international education, a disappointing level of economic engagement with our region.
Education services can, and will, go on redressing that imbalance.
By 2030, the size of the Asia-Pacific middle class is expected to reach 3.2 billion people, from about 500 million today.
UNESCO has forecast that the number of internationally mobile students will almost double from four million in 2010 to seven million by 2020, much of it in our region.
Many will be interested in our services in education, including intensive English language courses and vocational education and training.
This is why we need a new architecture for international education.
We have to be on the front foot so we can grow in a sustainable way that enhances our reputation for quality and our responsiveness to regional and global education needs.
Australia has an enviable international reputation for the quality and professionalism of its international education industry.
A reputation that is underscored by the efforts of other countries seeking to emulate our success.
We have competitive advantages in international education through the expertise and professionalism of providers, in our reputation for quality, your business-like approach to delivery and countless other positives.
However, I am not convinced these advantages are being properly exploited.
Recent global economic challenges have placed pressure on education and training systems around the world. Here in Australia, we are continuing to experience a high Australian dollar which results in stronger competition from other countries.
The latest data for the year-to-date August 2013 shows international student enrolments have grown less than one per cent compared with the same period in 2012.
We need strong ideas here and we need to rebuild as a matter of urgency.
I know you have consistently responded to these pressures by emphasising innovation and efficiency in teaching and research, and I commend you for it.
Looking to the future, we need to be more responsive to increased student demand for mobility and flexibility.
We need to lead other countries in the use of technology to expand educational opportunity and access.
We need frameworks and policies that anticipate the region’s changing demography and circumstances.
Overall, we need to be positioned to embrace a dynamic global environment, characterised by intense competition.
So it is now time to draw the proverbial line in the sand.
It is time for international education in Australia to become more than a commodity for exchange, more than an export market.
It is time for long term thinking about what international education means for Australia.
It is time to deepen cooperation and collaboration and focus attention to support sustainable growth of the sector.
The Coalition Government will work with you to unlock the full potential of Australian international education.
I am tremendously excited by what we can achieve, working together.
One of the exciting initiatives we will be getting underway soon is our new Colombo Plan.
My department will work in close collaboration with the Department of Foreign Affairs. It is not just about education. It is about Australia’s soft diplomatic capacity, our place in a region where relationships are so important.
Everyone here knows that student mobility can have many benefits for individual students and for the communities they leave and join.
We only have to look at the remarkable legacy of Australia’s contribution to the original Colombo Plan.
Over 30 years, Australia supported more than 20,000 of the region’s best and brightest scholars to study at Australian institutions.
These scholarships offered both a quality tertiary education and the formative experiences that come with studying and living in a culture other than your own.
It helped to build genuine, mutual understandings.
Just as a generation of Asia’s future leaders left Australia enriched from the experience of studying and living abroad, we want more Australian students to benefit from the understanding that comes with a study experience overseas.
We want future Australian professionals to take for granted friendships and relationships, formed at times of mutual professional development, with their peers in our region.
The pilot phase of the New Colombo Plan will commence in 2014, with full implementation from 2015.
We will be working closely with business to facilitate internships for Australians studying under the New Colombo Plan, so when they complete their studies they are both Asia-literate and work-ready.
Can I acknowledge with gratitude the strong contributions universities and many individuals here today have made in developing this initiative, particularly Phil Honeywood.
Universities will be critical to its success.
We will look to you to identify and encourage your best students for the scholarship stream, forge new agreements with the region to facilitate the mobility of students and build on your existing programs and activities for shorter stays.
I am looking forward to working with you to make this important New Colombo Plan a success.
We will also be working to boost knowledge among Australian students of the languages of our key regional partners.
This is vital to unlocking potential across the Asian region for Australia, and supporting student mobility initiatives such as the New Colombo Plan.
So we will revive the teaching of foreign languages in schools to ensure that at least 40 per cent of Year 12 students are once more studying a language other than English within a decade.
The way forward for international education is closely linked to our future plans for higher education.
A high quality, world-leading higher education system is crucial to supporting Australian international education.
Our plans include working with the sector to reduce inefficiencies, including through significant rationalisation of the red tape and regulatory burden, so you can concentrate on delivering results and services.
We will also review government research funding to provide stability in research financing and the pursuit of research excellence, so each dollar is spent as effectively as possible.
And we will encourage universities to strengthen and expand existing collaborative research and teaching partnerships.
We will also encourage modernisation and the development of world-class education and research capabilities and support the use of new technologies, particularly digital and information technology.
In February this year we established the Online Higher Education Working Group, chaired by Mr Alan Tudge MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister.
Its task included investigating the benefits to the sector of online technology, implications for international education and what government should do to enable institutions to make the most of the opportunities online technology provides.
The government will be considering the recommendations of the Working Group to ensure Australia is poised to respond to and seize the opportunities online technology offers.
More broadly, I see some strong opportunities in our participation in multilateral groups such as APEC and the East Asia Summit.
In particular, we can use this participation to develop comparable and complementary processes in areas such as quality assurance, provider mobility and qualifications recognition.
Harmonising our systems in these ways will contribute to improvements in education quality across the region.
This will also create pathways to increase collaboration, and help us to improve the resilience and sustainability of international education.
I am encouraged by the strong position taken by APEC Leaders, including Prime Minister Abbott, in support of international education by reinforcing their support for the cross border education agenda in their Statement released in Bali yesterday.
This has been but a brief survey of the government’s plans for international education.
I am looking forward to our ongoing discussions about how we can develop a new architecture to support the sector.
With the Chaney Report estimating student numbers could grow 30 per cent to over 500,000 international students by 2020, we need to be ready to accommodate this demand and even greater growth down the line.
While I am keen to develop the new architecture and strategy for international education and get it underway, we also need to get it right.
In education, as in other areas, the new government will be methodical and stable.
I give you the clear commitment today that your future investments in this sector will be safe under this government.
I recognise that the sort of investments we are talking about to meet expected demand are of large scale and have elements of risk associated with them.
Once we have created the framework and established the playing field for those investments to occur, we will not be moving the goalposts – as Labor did.
In establishing the new architecture, it’s vital that we have the input of everyone in this room and beyond so we can unlock the enormous potential for future growth.
We want to foster an Australia where people can create wealth and take up opportunities.
I can tell you there is tremendous zeal across the Cabinet table to establish fresh, practical approaches that will boost the domestic economy and build Australia’s reputation and presence in our region.
International education is a very fine place to start.
I truly look forward to working with everyone involved to ensure Australia is ready for growth and we can build international education to be the best it can be.