Release type: Transcript

Date:

Times Higher Education Live ANZ event

Ministers:

The Hon Alan Tudge MP
Minister for Education and Youth

JOHN ROSS:

Well, good afternoon, everybody. Welcome back to THE Live ANZ and the Ministerial Keynote Address. Alan Tudge is Australia’s Minister for Education and Youth, and we’re grateful to have him joining us during a very busy parliamentary sitting day. Minister, I know you’re really pressed for time, so over to you.

ALAN TUDGE:

Well, thanks so much, John. Thanks for your role as the the Asia-Pacific Editor of the Times Higher Education, and thanks for having me and being able to participate in your conference today, even if it's just virtual. A particular welcome, I think, you've got a number of members who are from other countries. I know we've got a lot of Aussies on the line think some New Zealanders and perhaps people further afield in the Asia-Pacific area as well. So, a particular welcome to you. And can I just thank you for accommodating me today as well. I know I had to shift the schedule slightly, John, so thank you for that. Just being in parliament here, sometimes things shift around a bit. 

Can I at the outset just acknowledge, particularly the New South Welsh men and women, and also some of the Queenslanders who are presently in lockdown, no doubt in your home that you're watching this. I'm a Victorian, and as all of you know, we had a very, very long lockdown ourselves, and so I know what you're going through, but we certainly feel for you and hope that you can get out of that position very soon. 

John, today I really wanted to focus my remarks on international education. We've got a broad range of priorities which we're dealing with from the government level, which I'm leading, on research commercialisation, on the Australian student experience, on a number of other matters. But most importantly today, I do want to talk about international education. It's one which every university leader wants to speak to me about, and many of the student leaders do as well. And because it goes to a very important economic industry for Australia, it goes to the finances of the universities, but equally, it goes to what’s been very important for Australia culturally in terms of having international students come to our country, many of whom which do their education, a little bit of work and go home, but many of whom also stay on to become great Australian citizens. And we certainly want to have a flourishing international education sector.

Obviously, with COVID, we shut the borders very early on. And when you look back in hindsight, it's one of the key things that we did, as did New Zealand, in order to keep our country safe from the virus. And it's one of the key reasons why Australia, from a health perspective and from an economic perspective, has done as well, if not better than any other country on Earth. What it has meant, though, obviously is a significant hit to what is our fourth biggest export market, and that is international education, because international students haven't been able to come into the country. And that's been occurring now for quite some time. 

The relative good news is, I think because of the work of the universities and some of the changes which we made to our settings, those international student numbers haven't dropped off as much as what we thought they might. But nevertheless, as of today, compared to the baseline of 2019, we're down about 11 per cent. Some institutions are down much more, some institutions down less. And in fact, have an increase in international students this year compared to 2019. The English language sector has been particularly hard hit, and some of the private higher education provider’s also hard hit. Now we're aware of that and we're making adjustments in terms of our finances in relation to that as well. And you'd be aware of some of the packages which we've already put on offer. We then, get to the question about, what do we do now? And it's in two parts that question. I think it's what do we do now to start to get international students back in to the country as quickly as possible? And then what do we do in the medium term when the borders can be reopened again? And I can't tell you when that might be. 

The now question is when the borders are still closed, can we start to nevertheless have some pilots of international students? And the answer to that is, yes, we can. I'm still hopeful that the South Australian pilot will commence soon. I've just been in communication with Premier Marshall from South Australia, and certainly he's keen to see that progress, as are we. And it'll be up to South Australia in terms of setting the timeframe for that. 

New South Wales had plans which were quite considerable in size for pilots to come in. They were very close to being ready to execute but have obviously been put on pause for the moment, given the lockdown across Greater Sydney. they are ready to go again. It’ll be up to New South Wales to determine when that might be able to start opening up. And I know some other jurisdictions are also working with university sectors on pilots as well, and I'd certainly encourage those other jurisdictions to do the work which New South Wales did and which South Australia did to get into that position where those pilots would be able to go ahead. So that's the short term. Also, short term, we’ll continue to support those students who are who are learning online overseas. we’ll continue to support those students who are still in Australia with the best possible experience that we can provide them, including giving them additional work rights, which we have done in order to support themselves, and of course, that also supports our industries here. 

We then shift to the medium term. And that starts really once our vaccination rate starts to get up at 70 to 80 per cent, when we move into the next phase of our reopening plan and where we can start to allow greater capped entry of student visa holders subject to quarantine arrangements and availabilities. Now, when will that occur? We haven't put a hard deadline on that. We're hopeful that that will occur by Christmas, that we move into that phase, and then to get to 80 per cent soon after. Now, once we start to get to that position of having more open borders, I think that we are still well positioned to be able to bring international students back and have our commencement numbers start to accelerate again quite rapidly. Now, why do I say that? Today, I’m revealing the most recent International Education Experience Surveys. And when I look at those surveys, the fundamentals are still very strong for Australia. This survey was done surveying 87,000 international students last August and September. So that was in the height of Melbourne's second wave of the pandemic. And Melbourne, obviously has about 40 per cent of international students. But nevertheless, 91 per cent of those international students then rated their overall living experience in Australia highly. To me, that's a very important number. So, they liked being in Australia. They rated that living experience being in Australia. 97 per cent were satisfied with their safety in Australia. This is something where we had a hiccup with some Indian students a decade or so ago now, 97 per cent of people feel safe when they come here, a very important attribute. And also 91 per cent of people were satisfied that their accommodation and opportunities to improve their English language skills, present when they were here. So, this was done last August and September, and we're still getting such high ratings from those students. And that, to me, shows that those fundamentals of the Australian experience are still good for international students. 

I think the one number, though, out of the survey, which I'm announcing today, which is concerning, is that the overall education experience dropped by 12 percentage points. In some respects, that's understandable. I get that, particularly given the Melbourne situation. But it dropped down to 63 per cent, which is not a number that we'd want to stay on. Overall, we were at 75 per cent, and even that number we should be able to improve upon. But, nevertheless, my take out from the International Education Experience Survey from last year is that those fundamentals are still strong for Australia. 
What can we do to be able to support the international education sector in that medium term, assuming then the borders are more open? And that's the question which certainly I'm putting my mind to and will be informed by the work which our higher education expert panel has been doing in developing up a draft international education strategy between 2021 and 2030.  So, it's a medium-term plan. And they've already provided some really good insights and some interesting ideas which we're going to be considering. In considering those ideas and when we revert and when we start to get more sizeable numbers of international students back, we do want to see it slightly differently done, though, and I've spelt out these previously. We do want to see greater diversity of students. We do want to see more alignments of international students towards courses where we have skills shortages in. We do want to ensure that both the Australian student experience and the international student experience is enhanced by the international students coming in. And ideally, we want to see a greater number of international students who are studying offshore as much as they are onshore, just as the United Kingdom has done. 

So, we've got some different objectives as well, which we would like to pursue in setting some of those medium-term policy settings, which we're working through. But thank you to the thousands of people who have engaged with that expert panel to work through some of those some of those ideas that have come through. 
What can you do as institutions, other governments, etc? I think that there's an opportunity as well for the universities themselves, for state governments, local governments, even the Federal Government, to be thinking about how we can ensure that Australia maintains itself as an attractive destination and that when international students do come here, they have a very rich experience across the board. I was just speaking to the Lord Mayor of Melbourne this morning, and she was talking to me about some of the initiatives that we used to have in place, even in terms of the old welcome pack, which the Committee for Melbourne used to provide, which was a mechanism for really welcoming those international students into Australia. And I think we need to be thinking about some of those things to encourage them to come back so that when they're back, they have a terrific experience. They meet as many Australians as possible and learn about our country and hopefully develop a love for our country so that they return.

So, I think that is something that additionally the universities, local councils and state governments can additionally be thinking about as much as the Federal Government is. 

I might finish up there. I know I’m on my 10 minutes, which was supposed to be my introductory comments and leaving some time for Q&As, John. But can I just say thank you to all of the university leaders, the academics that are on the line, particularly the Australian ones for the work which you are doing. I think during these very difficult and challenging times for many of you where we want to work with you in partnership. I think we've done that to date, and we’ll continue to do that. But my overall message is that I think while it's difficult from an international student perspective in the short term, I think we can be very hopeful in the medium term based on those international student surveys today, which I'm releasing. 

JOHN ROSS:

Thanks very much, Minister. And you noted 11 per cent of declined enrolments at the beginning. I guess we're all aware the real number that we have to watch is commencements and I think Catriona Jackson from UA mentioned that suddenly they’re down 35 per cent now compared to 2019 figures. Do you really think that number can really bounce back?

ALAN TUDGE:

Well, that is the question I meant to mention that, that while the overall enrolment numbers are down about 11 per cent and this is on average compared to the 2019 baseline, which was our last full year, the commencement figures are down a lot more. And obviously when your commencement figures are down for this year, that has a flow on effect into next year and the year after and even potentially the year after that. So that is an important point. 
And those commencement figures are different from different countries too John, which is quite interesting. The Chinese students, those numbers are holding up very nicely in terms of commencements. The Indian student numbers, have collapsed, as have the Nepalese student numbers have come down quite considerably as well. So, we're conscious of that. But your question, can that bounce back? It's difficult to know how quickly that can bounce back to being numbers anywhere similar to the 2019 numbers, which admittedly was a high point. I mean, I'm hopeful that a combination of the fundamentals of Australia been so strong in terms of our living experiences, as this survey sort of reveals, the lifestyle which we have, the friendliness of the Australian people and multicultural character. All of those fundamentals are still there, and the quality of our institutions is still there. And if we additionally look at some of the other things that we can do, both at a government level, but equally at institution level, or local government level, to really welcome students back and to try to accelerate that, then I think we can have that level of confidence in the medium term. What medium term looks like, I don't know. We haven't put a forecast on that yet. 

JOHN ROSS:

I understand that your draft strategy has been ready for a couple of weeks now. When do you anticipate releasing that and your response?

ALAN TUDGE:

So, it's only the draft at this stage. Now the team is still working on the final strategy and then the Government will consider the recommendations and respond to them. I would hope to do that this year, but they will be Cabinet decisions that I'll have to take through Cabinet. I know the sector is looking for, it's been very difficult for the sector in Australia because there's been so much uncertainty. And so, I know the sector is looking for whatever certainty and whatever hope they can see on the horizon. I'm trying to do that as much as possible by saying that we are still keen if the states and territories want to go ahead, for those pilots ultimately to go ahead. Ultimately, they'll be up to state governments to determine if they do so. And once we get our vaccination rate up to that 70 per cent figure, as I said, and as outlined in this National Cabinet plan, then international students start to come into the fore as well, let alone by the time we get to 80 per cent it might be able to be much further open as an economy.

JOHN ROSS:

I know we’re sort of running out of time. I think the really big quirks for this sector is really research funding. If you take University of Sydney for example, hit over $1.1 million last year from international students. If commencements drop off by 35 per cent, do the maths, you and your office and your government have always known this is going to be a slow burn, this problem for the university sector. If research funding really goes through a hole, are there any plans you’ve got in the bottom drawer to help universities?

ALAN TUDGE:

A couple of points. Probably the example of University of Sydney was not a good one, John, because they've actually had an increase in international student numbers, largely because they're so heavily weighted towards Chinese students now. My preference would be that they would have a greater diversity of students to be honest. It's those universities which have been more heavily weighted in Indian students, Nepalese students and others that have been harder hit. As I said, overall, in aggregate amongst the university sector, it's about 11 per cent down. But some are down much more. International education represents 25 per cent of revenue on average for a university. So compared to 2019 as a baseline, the revenue hit at this stage, and I preface that, at this stage is perhaps only three or four per cent compared to 2019 baseline will be a lot lower compared to what the budget figures would be for those universities. But those commencement numbers are down and that will have a flow on effect. Now, John, we did provide an additional $1.5 billion of extra support last October as you know, and that's floating through. I'm keeping a very close eye on that. And our department is monitoring these very closely. So, we're aware of the strains on the system. 

JOHN ROSS:

Unfortunately, we’re out of time, but thank you so much for joining us on a difficult day for you. We really appreciate it. Thank you.