This is my first visit to the Pacific as the Australian Government Minister for Education and it is a privilege to speak at the University of the South Pacific — one of the region’s leading providers of quality higher education.
I am particularly pleased to announce today a new name for this lecture theatre complex.
Constructed with Australia’s assistance, and officially opened by former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer in 1998, this lecture theatre complex is just one of the many examples of Australia’s long history of collaboration with Fiji and the region in the education sector.
History of relationship
Australia places a special value on its close historical, political, economic, aid and community links with the island countries and territories of the Pacific, and is committed to playing an active and constructive role in this region.
Some might say that the strength of this commitment is reflected in our development support for sustainable economic and social development through bilateral and regional programs; defence cooperation; shared maritime resources and significant trade and commercial interests in the region.
But there is much more to our history and relationship – being about the people and how we relate to each other. We share a passion for sport with a love of rugby (union), cricket, netball and we enjoy competition through the Commonwealth Games.
Australia’s ties with Pacific countries are deep and enduring. There are currently 210,000 Australians who are Pacific island born. It goes without saying that the various cultures of Pacific nations are a fundamental part of the rich cultural tapestry of Australian life.
From my home town of Adelaide, I can recall David Rodan, born in Lami (near Suva), who played Australian Football for Port Adelaide. And as much as I am a supporter of Port Adelaide’s rivals, the Adelaide Crows, he did a great job for them and for Australian Football. Excelling at sport, like education, takes commitment. And what always impresses me is how often our great athletes and scholars thank their families, coaches and role models who have inspired them to achieve their dreams.
As I go on to describe Australia’s involvement in the Pacific and our support for Fiji and the University of the South Pacific, I want to bring to the forefront of our minds how all these activities are underpinned by the people to people relationships and those who inspire us to strive to do more.
Australia’s commitment to USP
Australia has supported the University of the South Pacific (USP) since it was established in 1968.
Owned by its 12 member countries, it is uniquely placed to provide quality higher education and promote economic growth and development across the Pacific.
I am proud that Australia assisted USP’s first cohort of 32 students in 1971 to graduate. Since then more than 40,000 students have successfully completed their studies.
Australia is committed to working closely with USP to allow more students to gain valued qualifications here and assist in building on the university’s already fine reputation as an esteemed centre of learning in the South Pacific.
That’s why last year, the Australian Government signed a new partnership, committing $49 million from 2013–14 to 2016–17, to assist USP to progress the reforms set out in its 2013–18 strategic plan.
Alongside this financial assistance, Australia has also supported the appointment of two eminent Australians to serve on the University Council and the University Grants Committee.
I acknowledge the service on the University Council of Professor Janice Reid, who is a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney in Australia. Professor Reid was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia earlier this year in recognition of her contributions in Australia and internationally in the fields of higher education and health.
I also acknowledge Professor Barney Glover, the current Vice Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney, who serves on the University Grants Committee. He attended his first meeting here in Suva in July.
I know that both Professor Reid and Professor Glover bring a wealth of experience to their roles.
The Australian Government places a high priority on quality education. I think most here would agree that education and research are critical for boosting our nations’ productivity and growing our economies.
Some of our most promising collaborations are in research. In 2015, the Australian Government, through the Australian Research Council is funding 14 new and ongoing research projects between Australia and Fiji. Total funding allocated to these projects is approximately $2.2 million.
Projects cover such diverse areas as law, anthropology, environmental science and management, human society and applied economics.
I am delighted to say that there are 11 Australian universities sharing institutional agreements with universities in Fiji covering student, academic and researcher exchange.
I was very pleased to see the signing this month of a Memorandum of Understanding between USP and the Australian National University. This will pave the way for more staff and student exchanges and joint research projects between our two institutions.
The agreement the Australian Government has with USP outlines similar priorities that we have for Australian education institutions across tertiary education:
- To provide access to and improved outcomes from high quality, internationally recognised tertiary education and research;
- To improve the equity of student experiences across all campuses, leadership in ICT development and collaboration between institutions, and produce and disseminate research relevant to national policy makers;
- To enhance organisational capabilities and robust performance assessment and reporting.
The year of USP’s 50th anniversary, 2018, will be a landmark year, not only for the University, but also for Fiji to showcase itself to the world.
Fiji’s bid to host the 20th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers has been welcomed by the Commonwealth Secretary General, His Excellency Kamalesh Sharma, as announced in the Nassau Declaration following the 19th Commonwealth Education Ministers meeting in June.
There is great value in these Commonwealth meetings and I am keen to ensure that we build strong practical collaborations and deliver real outcomes.
There are strong links between our work with youth and education and building future prosperity and wellbeing for our nations.
Education plays a foundational role in building strong nations and strong relationships.
Education development assistance in Fiji
Australia’s collaboration in education with Fiji is not just confined to higher education, but also also extends to a shared commitment to access to quality school education.
Through the Access to Quality Education Program, Australia will invest up to $50 million from 2011 to 2017 to improve access to quality basic education for children in the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in Fiji.
As part of this programme, I was pleased this morning to hand over state-of-the-art industrial scale printing equipment to Fiji’s Minister for Education, Dr Mahendra Reddy. This equipment will help Fiji produce much needed text books and other educational materials.
Our shared commitment to improving education also extends to the vocational education and training sector.
Since 2007, over 8000 Pacific islanders have graduated from the Australia-Pacific Technical College, with more than 95 per cent of them now employed. Later today we will have the opportunity to meet some of the young men and women studying at the College at the Pacific Fusion Training Kitchen and Restaurant here on the USP campus.
I am excited about how this training will broaden their employment opportunities and help them gain valuable skills.
Learning from each other
Collaboration in education, however, is a two-way street, and I believe Australia has much to learn from its regional neighbours.
I recently released research by Australian Professor Brian Caldwell, who found that higher levels of school autonomy are associated with higher levels of student achievement.
The foundation of Fijian schooling embraces school autonomy. The responsibility for schools is shared between community groups and the Fijian Government. This arrangement sees that the daily operations of a school are the responsibility of the school owners, while matters such as curriculum and exams are the responsibility of the Ministry of Education.
The autonomy afforded to Fijian schools not only builds the capacity of your schools but also allows it to be responsive to the needs of your local communities. It thrives on parental commitment and partnership in education and this in turn places value on teaching and learning in the lives of Fijians.
The learning of languages in school is another area of importance to the Australian Government. In a rapidly globalised world, knowing more than one language is not only a personal benefit, but also contributes to a country’s trade and community resilience.
Fijian schools excel in this area, with all Fijian primary schools teaching Vosa VakaViti as well as Hindi.
Knowing more than one language not only builds stronger communities but also equips Fijians to be competitive internationally, whether in business or cultural pursuits.
Just a few weeks ago, I convened an International Education Roundtable in Canberra, which brought together many stakeholders to discuss the Australian Government’s Draft National Strategy for International Education.
International students who come to Australia bring views and cultures from which we learn.
Students studying overseas, whether they are Australians studying in Fiji or Fijian students in Australia, get to experience another culture and a different perspective. And they develop friendships and networks that last a lifetime.
The New Colombo Plan
The Australian Government also recognises the great value in Australian students visiting our neighbours. Through its flagship mobility programme, the New Colombo Plan, Australia is supporting around 140 Australian undergraduate students to study and intern in Fiji in 2015 and 2016 and to learn more about this beautiful country.
One New Colombo Plan scholar, Anthony Randell of the University of South Australia, who is here today, hopes that his environmental studies at the University of the South Pacific’s Laucala Bay campus will assist his future career in maintaining healthy ecosystems.
Anthony’s path to becoming a New Colombo Plan scholar is one that reflects a singular strength of the Australian education system and that is flexible learning pathways. I understand pathways and lifelong learning opportunities are also important to Pacific countries to provide access to education and higher level skills.
Anthony is building on his skills to be an outstanding “ambassador for collaboration” through his university studies and work internship that he will undertake in Fiji after his study programme at USP.
Other Australian students have come to Fiji to study nutrition, Pacific society and culture, and to undertake clinical placements in health programmes like nursing and medicine.
On that note, I also acknowledge Kate Jackson and Charlotte Durand who are here today. They are James Cook University medical students undertaking clinical placements in obstetrics and gynaecology at the Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Suva, with clinical supervision associated with Fiji National University.
The experiences of Anthony, Kate and Charlotte here in Fiji will build their knowledge and understanding of working in a different culture, with different languages and environments, but more importantly, they will build those people-to-people relationships that create connections from which all of us benefit.
The Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, and I were delighted last Friday to announce the outcomes of the New Colombo Plan Mobility Program for 2016. For Fiji, there will be some 104 students funded to come for short term study, semester study and internships. Across the Pacific, there will be 78 students going to the Solomon Islands, 80 students going to Samoa, 46 students studying in Papua New Guinea, 32 in Vanuatu and 20 each going to the Cook Islands and Tonga.
This is a wonderful reflection of the important relationships that we have through education and training.
Endeavour Scholarships and Fellowships and Australia Awards
As well as the New Colombo Plan, Australia offers a range of government, institutional and private sector mobility and scholarship programmes, including the Endeavour Scholarships and Fellowships.
Endeavour scholarships and fellowships provide students and researchers from around the world, including from Fiji, with an opportunity to undertake study, research and professional development in Australia and for Australians to do the same overseas.
These experiences can be life-changing as students from the Queensland University of Technology described their work on a project here in Fiji:
The Endeavour Program has previously funded a group of QUT students across five disciplines to work collaboratively in teams to deliver learning outcomes in Fijian primary schools using ICT. The University donated computers and the students facilitated the setting up of computer rooms. The students summed it “as a life changing experience" and all have rated it a 10/10.
The latest 2014 project will see students setting up ICT learning programs in schools on Taveuni (remote island) using technology powered by solar energy. It is envisaged that 10 undergraduate students from across disciplines will participate in this project.
Since 2007, 15 Fijian students have undertaken study, research or professional development in Australia through Endeavour scholarships or fellowships. Over this same period, six Australians have accepted an Endeavour scholarship or fellowship to come to Fiji.
In addition, there are currently 61 Australia Awards Scholarship recipients from Fiji studying programmes in Australia that are not available in the Pacific region, and around 60 Australia Awards Pacific Scholarships (AAPS) recipients are studying at technical and vocational level.
Since 2007, more than 1300 Fijian Australia Awards Scholarship alumni obtained a quality education and are now making a positive contribution to their community and the region.
I was pleased to see recently that the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) has partnered with USP to offer postgraduate research scholarships in agricultural development. These scholarships will play a vital role in building sustainability for Fiji’s agriculture sector and seek out new ways to broaden economic growth.
Naming of the Australia Pacific Lecture Theatre
As I have outlined, Australia and Fiji, and indeed the Pacific, share a long history of collaboration in the education sector. These relationships are ones that I, as Australia’s Education Minister, hope to build on.
In this lecture theatre beside me, lecturers and professors have been imparting knowledge, sparking curiosity and instilling inspiration in students for the past 17 years and I am confident that they will continue to inspire the future leaders of the Pacific for many more years to come.
In recognition of the close ties between Australia and our Pacific neighbours, and the partnership between Australia and the University of the South Pacific, I am very pleased to name this building today, the Australia Pacific Lecture Theatre.
The naming of this lecture hall here at USP reflects not only Australia’s deep connection with this wonderful university but also our commitment to education and learning right across the Pacific region.
For a university to truly service and provide the best it can for its student body its campus facilities must reflect that commitment to excellence.
I do hope this wonderful Australia Pacific Lecture Theatre plays a very large part in the rich student experience gained over the years ahead here at the University of the South Pacific.
I wish the USP all the best for the future and I can assure you of Australia’s continuing close relationship with what is truly one of the world’s most unique universities.