Release type: Speech


International Education: The road back


The Hon Alan Tudge MP
Minister for Education and Youth

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to say a few words at the Australian International Education Conference.

My speech today is an optimistic one about the rebound of the international student sector.  I want to explain why I am optimistic.  But I also want to outline some broad markers as to how I think we need to do things differently in the medium term as we rebuild our sector. 

Let me start, however, by acknowledging how tough these past 18 months have been for the international education sector. 

Obviously since we closed our borders last March, no new in-country commencements have occurred, and many thousands of others have been stuck offshore in the middle of their course.

I really want to thank you for your persistence and perseverance during these difficult times.  It has been tough across the board, but particularly for those providers who offer shorter courses such as English language providers. 

They have been particularly hit hard as you don’t have the revenue from those students doing a 3rd or 4th year of their course. Consequently, you have had student enrolments decline by 70% since this time in 2019 (our last full year), whereas for the public universities as a whole, the decline has been 17%. 

Those providers that have been more dependent on the Indian, Nepalese and Vietnamese as opposed to the Chinese market, have also been hit very hard, with commencement numbers from those markets falling very hard. Whereas, the commencement numbers for Chinese higher education students overall is down only 26% and some public universities have actually had an increase in international student enrolments (offshore of course).

I also want to thank those international students for the patience they have shown. Thousands have continued to do their studies offshore or even enrolled in new courses offshore.  We want to have you in Australia for the full experience of Australian life and I am confident that this will happen very soon.

Our Government has made a considerable effort to support the sector during these difficult stages in an effort to keep businesses afloat and capacity in the system so that when students return, you can bounce back quickly.

The support started almost immediately after the pandemic was declared and has continued since.

In April 2020, the Government guaranteed Commonwealth Grant Scheme and HELP funding streams for higher education providers at their then current levels for the remainder of 2020, irrespective of a fall in domestic student numbers.

When you take into account these guarantees and the continuing flow of investment in research, the Commonwealth effectively put a floor under half of the revenue streams to universities in 2020.

Between May and December of 2020, we provided funding for short, online courses to help Australians retrain.

Last October, we provided an extra $1 billion research funding for 2021.  And a further $550 million to tertiary education providers to provide short courses and 12,000 new undergraduate Commonwealth supported places.

In April this year, we announced $53.6 million of targeted support for international education providers hardest hit by COVID-19 and encourage providers to refocus their business models on Australian students and expand online and offshore course offerings.

This included further FEE-HELP loan fee exemptions for about 30,000 existing and prospective students.

Importantly, we have also provided regulatory flexibility, particularly in relation to visa conditions to enable services to continue to be provided.

That flexibility will continue to apply as long as travel restrictions are in place.

I continue to have discussions with Phil Honeywood and the sector and sub-sectors about their financial position, noting that even if commencing students came back in 2022 to the same numbers as in 2019, there will still be financial challenges to some providers because of the loss of students in 2020 and 2021, which has a multi-year impact.

I said, however, that I am optimistic about the pathway from here. 

To start, our vaccination rates continue to increase rapidly, largely through the pharmacies and GP networks, and we are getting very close to hitting the 70 and 80 per cent vaccination targets.

Already we have 81 per cent of over 16s are now first dose vaccinated, just under 60 per cent second dose. In New South Wales, they have already hit 70 per cent of double doses.

These vaccination rates allow for the entire re-opening of our economy, including the opening of our international borders. The National Plan, as you know, expressly states that international students can start to return at 70 per cent, and then in larger numbers from 80 per cent. 

In fact, we have already announced that international travel will recommence in November.  Initially this will be for Australians and permanent residents, with students and skilled workers the next cab off the ranks. 

Further, we are putting in place the mechanisms to allow for the safe entry of larger numbers of arrivals. 

For example, we will be introducing an International COVID19 Vaccine Certificate this month. While at first this will be for outbound travel for Australians, it will be expanded to authenticate vaccination certificates issued by other countries.

Further, we have confirmed that the Sinovac and Covishield vaccines will be recognised for incoming international travelers, in addition to the four vaccines already approved for use in Australia — Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

This is critical for international students who have received these vaccines in our largest source countries such as India and China.

We are also trialing home-based quarantining. This is critical because, if successful, it can break the hotel quarantine bottleneck. This could potentially be for a matter of days, not weeks, in the not too distant future.

We then have small numbers coming in later this year which will hopefully build confidence.  The New South Wales Government is expecting to have around 500 international students return in December, following significant discussions and planning between the state and the Commonwealth.

We are also working closely with South Australia on final details of when and how students will return to there, under the plan we supported in June.

And the Victorian Government submitted its plan to the Commonwealth just last night. It is now being reviewed by Commonwealth agencies.

These are all very promising and they are happening this year.

Looking into next year, my expectation is that we will have very significant numbers coming in.  I cannot put a figure on that just yet, but my hope would be that tens of thousands can return. 

While at least in the shorter term we may be limiting the numbers, my hope is that we can quickly get to unlimited numbers so that demand is the driver of numbers of incoming students, not the supply of available places.

When that occurs, I am confident that students will return in significant numbers.  We are known for exceptionally high quality education, for our incredible lifestyle and for being friendly welcoming people. 

The international student experience data shows that 91 per cent of international students rated their overall living experience in Australia very highly.

We are considering what policies we could put in place to help expedite the rapid return of students once supply no longer becomes the limiting factor.  And I thank Phil and the Expert Members of the Council for International Education for their commitment, advice and for steering a consultation that captured the views of more than 1,600 participants.

I am often reminded by Phil Honeywood that the Council is unique in the world in having five Cabinet Ministers, along with peak bodies, sector representatives and a student representative all at the one table.

I cannot be clearer about our desire to get international students back into the country.  They have been an incredible source of revenue for our institutions and other businesses, they generate important linkages across our neighbouring countries, and many students have gone on to become outstanding citizens of our nation.

Of course, they have also been an important source of labour while they are here, not just during their time that they are studying, but also in their post-study work rights which many students take advantage of. I understand that Bernard Salt touched on some of this yesterday.

These are just the Australian benefits. For the vast majority of students who return to their home country, they bring skills back and, in most cases, a fondness for our nation.

This is one of our great export industries and we want to see it return strongly.

When we do start to get our international student numbers up again, however, we do need to do things differently to make the sector more sustainable and to create new opportunities for growth.

I have been signaling this for some time.

In particular, we ideally have a greater diversity of students coming into the country. This is particularly important for our public institutions who have broader mandates (and less so for private institutions who may target specific niches).

We are highly concentrated in students from five countries, and particularly from China and India. 

The top five source markets make up 72 per cent of university enrolments compared with 61 per cent in the United States, 45 per cent in the UK and 66 per cent in Canada.

In some universities, one nationality makes up 80 per cent of their entire international student cohort.

This matters for two reasons. First is from a financial risk perspective. If any one market declines suddenly, then it puts financial risk onto that institution, and subsequently onto the taxpayer. 

Second, from a student’s perspective, particularly for Australian students but also for international students, it diminishes their experience. 

Some universities have responded to this through limits on international students and limits on proportion of students from any one country. 

We would obviously like to see universities themselves taking the lead on this, but we are also thinking deeply about policies to help facilitate this. 

Ideally, we would also have a greater diversity of courses in which international students enrol. And in particular, a stronger alignment with Australian skills needs, given that so many international students do stay on and become longer term residents.

The National Skills Commission has identified our greater skills needs in emerging fields that will drive our growth in the future. These include data and digital specialists, the health profession and engineers — especially those in energy.

However, currently almost half of international enrolments at universities are concentrated in commerce, while fields like engineering, maths, technology and health attract significantly lower shares than the OECD average. 

Again, we are looking at whether we can create greater incentives to encourage students to enrol in these skills’ shortage areas.

Finally, while we have traditionally done well in the number of students who have come to do full-time study in Australia, there is an opportunity for further growth of our international student market by expanding our high quality education offerings to offshore markets. This could be in different delivery models at different price points.

The market is enormous and compared to nations like the United Kingdom, we are well behind.

The global online e-learning market, for example, is forecast to grow from $130 billion to more than $470 billion by later this decade. This growth is driven by students around the world who are unable to afford a premium in-country experience and looking for more affordable options, but also more flexible ones.

These issues are being explored in greater depth through the development of our International Education 2030 Strategy. I know many of you have provided input into this. 

I expect to launch the Strategy later this year. 

I know it is hard to think about the medium term given where we are today, but I am confident that we will bounce back.

We have the quality institutions, we have the lifestyle, we have a desire to make visa products competitive, and we have opportunities for many to stay on and make a long lasting contribution to our nation.

We are nearly through the worst. 

The light is on the horizon.  And we are going to back you all the way to get back even better.

Let me finish by just touching on international education from an outward perspective. That is, Australians travelling abroad to other countries. Our Government pioneered the New Colombo Plan back in 2014 with the objective of lifting knowledge of the Indo-Pacific in Australia. It has also obviously been paused during this pandemic, but we also hope that it can return as quickly as possible. 

Around 10,000 students a year have taken advantage of this and we hope that many more thousands of young Australians will also have that opportunity in the future.

Thank you once again for having me here today to make some brief remarks.