Address to the Committee for Economic Development Australia (CEDA)

Speech
  • Assistant Minister for Education and Training

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The concept of education as an industry is a controversial one. Education is a public good, with private benefits. It enables and empowers individuals, while strengthening and enriching both communities and nations.

I dare say that every Australian recognises education as a right, whatever their differing views on how far that right extends or how best it is delivered. It is a right that through our foreign and international development policies we encourage other nations to extend to their citizens.

Australians also recognise that beyond basic rights to foundational skills like language, literacy and numeracy, enormous economic value and private benefit can be realised via higher and more specialised education and training. This is especially important in our modern, globalised economy.

Because of its higher order ambitions education may never be embraced as an industry per se, but education is a service where continued innovation is essential; excellence or specialisation is valued; and cost effectiveness is expected.

Research has demonstrated that choice and, therefore, competition improve the quality of educational outcomes and reach of educational offerings.

Thanks to the excellence of our educational institutions, robustness of our academic and regulatory settings and inherent appeal of our nation, Australia is a destination of choice for many international students.

Last year, some 453,000 people chose Australia as a place to study. Tens of thousands more studied with Australian institutions in offshore locations.
In 2014 the provision of international education services generated $17 billion in export income to Australia. It represents our largest services export. Whether or not you call it an industry, international education clearly makes a major economic contribution to Australia. It supports 130,000 Australian jobs and it is estimated that one job is created in Australia for every two international students who study here.

Importantly though, like education generally, international education achieves much more than pure economic outcomes.

The interaction between international students and Australian students enriches the educational experience for those Australian students, expanding their horizons and knowledge. It creates people-to-people links and enhanced cultural understandings that strengthen our research, trade, investment, security, and social engagement with the world.

Since 2002, more than 1.8 million international students have studied in Australia. That's 1.8 million people scattered across our region of the globe who have a better understanding of our nation, and we trust are advocates both for us and of us thanks to their experiences down under.

Our Government recognises the richness of these experiences, which is why we are committed not only to growing our own international education offering, but to encouraging more Australians to study overseas, especially within our region via initiatives like the New Colombo programme.

Following some significant declines in international education numbers thanks to policy missteps under the previous government, we are rebuilding and again growing Australia's international education sector.

As you saw from John's [John Angley, Austrade] charts, we've seen 15 per cent growth during then past year. In my particular areas of portfolio responsibility of vocational education and training we have seen 20 per cent growth in student numbers.

But we are not resting on our laurels from those initiatives we've undertaken to date and the benefits that they're realising. As John highlighted, in April of this year the Government released for consultation the Draft National Strategy for International Education. The strategy outlines three pillars to keep our international education offering strong, and to grow it further into the future. Firstly, getting the fundamentals right; creating an education system that stands out as the best in the world with some of our institutions ranked among the very best in the world.

Secondly, reaching out to the world; building on our strong education and research partnerships to broaden engagement in international education, fostering an international outlook among Australian students and researchers, and attracting more of the world's students and researchers to Australia. And thirdly, staying competitive; continuing to improve the quality of the educational and living experience for international students, and embracing new opportunities to grow international education in Australia.

A Coordinating Council for International Education has been established to oversee the finalisation of this National Strategy for International Education, and the development of an implementation plan to see that it is more than just a well thought out document. The council is chaired by my colleague and friend Christopher Pyne, the Minister for Education and  training, but importantly it brings together the six critical portfolios that have responsibility for ensuring a whole of government approach to international education, and bringing together not just Christopher and I but also the ministers for trade, for foreign affairs, for industry, and for immigration, to help ensure we have that comprehensive whole of government strategy that also is rounded off by industry expertise, with six key industry and expert figures helping to shape and craft this strategy.

And I acknowledge Phil Honeywood here today, the Chief Executive of the International Education Association of Australia, who we'll be
hearing from shortly.

We held our first roundtable on international education in June, addressed by nearly all of the ministers on that panel, bringing together around 100 participants ranging from education and business experts to students, the community, and members of the Government, to work on a shared vision for the future of Australian international education. We'll be holding our second such roundtable next month, and we'll continue to engage and encourage feedback on the draft strategy.

As the first dedicated Minister for Vocational Education and Training (VET) and Skills in Australia in some seven years, I want to particularly highlight focus on vocational education and training as a key part of our international education offering. Our Government's objectives for international engagement in the VET sector are four-fold. Firstly, obviously, to increase the numbers of international students studying here in Australia with high-quality VET providers. But secondly, and as John highlighted, the importance of in-market delivery, expanding opportunities for Australian-registered training organisations to offer training overseas, particularly through partnerships with overseas industry providers or businesses. Thirdly, supporting Australian businesses operating overseas to be able to access a locally skilled workforce that is skilled to Australia's high standards and expectations.

And finally, where possible, embedding Australian skill standards as the transnational standards to help encourage and enhance global workforce and labour mobility. As Manufacturing Skills Australia noted in its submission to the draft national strategy, the global competition for skilled workers increases in the next few decades, increasing the pool of workers with Australian qualifications and work experience through our international education industry, will be crucial for the Australian economy.

In 2014 there were almost 150,000 international students enrolling in VET courses in Australia. And there were just under 50,000 international students enrolled in Australian VET courses offshore. By 2030, with the global labour force predicted to grow to around 3.5 billion, and with growing demand for intermediate and technical-level skills, Australia is well-placed to grow these markets. Globally, the number of internationally mobile students is also expected to rise, from 3.5 million in 2009 to 7 million by 2020 — at least 50 per cent of whom are expected to seek an English language education. The opportunities for Australia are truly vast.

But to have a strong international offering, we must ensure we maintain the quality, and status, and calibre of our institutions and of our educational standards. To have a strong international offering we must first and foremost maintain a sound, solid, and successful domestic base. In Australia, around 20 per cent of school leavers go on to some form of vocational education and training immediately, and many more participate throughout their lives. While in 2013 around 1.3 million people studied at a university in Australia, around three million Australians participated in some form of vocational education and training, more than twice the number at university.

As the dedicated Minister for vocational education and training, I've sought to make sure we strengthen our VET sector domestically, and therefore internationally, by having a strong focus on the job-relevance of vocational training, on the quality of training, and on lifting the overall status of our VET sector. We've introduced a new training model that puts industry at the centre of determining the content of vocational education and training qualifications, because it is that job readiness that is what people value so greatly about a vocational qualification. And after all, nobody knows better the skills that are needed and wanted in modern workplaces than employers themselves. To support this new system, we've established the Australian Industry and Skills Committee to help deliver on important reforms, provide clearer advice from industry and employers to governments on VET policy, and to give those employers a stronger voice in the setting of skill sets and competencies that are the base of our qualifications.

Our new training package model will simplify training packages for students, employers, and training providers. In terms of quality, we've strengthened the national standards of registered training organisations, strengthened the national legislation that gives greater power to deal with any problems that arise in the VET sector, and invested a further $68 million in the national regulator, the Australian Skills and Quality Authority, to allow it to focus on its core business of targeting [indistinct] and thereby ensure it is encouraging though the provision of excellence from our training institutions. We are serious about ensuring the quality of Australian training delivery, regardless of where it is delivered — be it in Australia or overseas.

This month I've had the chance to visit China and Korea.

It provided a fantastic opportunity to advocate for Australia's excellent education and training system, and all that we can offer and do offer the world. Industry and government leaders in both countries told me about their current and future training and education needs and challenges. And what was abundantly clear was that there is huge potential for Australia to help these counties meet their skills challenges. China and Korea are of course two of Australia's largest trading partners. Two-way trade between China and Australia was worth almost $160 billion in 2013-14, with exports to China totalling more than $107 billion. Total trade with Korea over the same timeframe was more than $34 billion.

China's economic performance, as many in this room will appreciate, has seen more than 500 million people advance into the middle class and has spurred on advances not just in infrastructure, but also in education. University enrolments in China have increased from 3.4 million people in 1998 to 22.3 million people in 2010, which shows the priority that China places on having a well educated workforce to help power their economic [indistinct]. In VET alone, around 35,000 people are enrolled with Australian providers, providing in-market training in China. But this is out of a market of more than 30 million Chinese VET enrolments over all, which China aims to lift to above 38 million just by 2020 as part of their drive for further productivity gains and economic growth.

China's focus has been on increasing access to education and they are having great success and we are well placed to help them build on that success. But they are also now firmly focused in ensuring the quality of this education and training. We need to be offering a product that continues to set us ahead of the rest, which is one in which they can have, as we should have, nothing but high confidence in the quality of what is being delivered. While in Beijing, we took an important step towards ensuring that confidence is maintained and secured in the future. We signed a memorandum of understanding between Australia and China to strengthen collaboration on quality assurance in training. The agreement between the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) and the China Education Association for International Exchange, represents an important step in the Australia-China VET relationship. It's the first time ASQA will have the ability to access Australian training providers based in China to ensure the training delivered there is of the highest quality.

Australia and China have much to gain from greater collaboration and this partnership will help to ensure high quality, industry relevant training is offered to give people real skills for real jobs. It will ensure Chinese authorities, Chinese business, Chinese parents, Chinese students can have the utmost of confidence that when they attend an Australian education or training provider delivering training in China, it will be of the same high standards as we would expect were that training being delivered here in Australia.

So too in Korea, opportunities are immense. Student mobility between our two countries is already supported by over 200 agreements between Australia and Korean education and training stakeholders. Last year we were joined by more than 20,000 Korean students with the majority of these undertaken in vocational education and training program across a broad range of industry sectors. As you are all aware, the Abbott Government has recently completed three historic free trade agreements with China, Korea and Japan as well, each of which includes benefits international education.

The Indian Comprehensive Economic Corporation Agreement is scheduled to be signed by the end of this year. All of these agreements provide a strong platform for Australian education providers to tap into these markets and participate in global supply chains including in the delivery of education training and services. As Navitas has noted in their submission to our international strategy, governments and businesses are actively seeking partnerships and collaborations with education providers that can equip their populations with the skills and know-how to build competitive economies and globally engaged societies. It's an important note to bear in mind that as always in business, while government provides ideally the right frame of policy settings, it's up to the individual institutions to make the most of those frameworks, policy settings and to seize and secure the opportunities.

While in China I was fortunate to see firsthand some of the innovative and collaborative partnerships that were in play, some of which had existed for a long time, others which are seen increased flow of training between our two countries.

The Box Hill TAFE Institute, from here in Victoria, working in collaboration in Shanghai, with the Shanghai Pharmaceutical School is a decade long arrangement that is providing training of the highest quality and enjoying employment outcomes for graduates of about 98 per cent.

Flowing in the other direction we are seeing Chinese companies as they grow in scale and influence in the world investing more here in Australia, global technology giant Huawei is spending $30 million on a new training facility in Sydney that will not only be training their staff and the staff of their customers, but is also providing increased opportunity to universities ands TAFEs that are partnering with for training on their latest technology platforms. Equally I mentioned the strength and the range of relationships in Korea and there we are truly engaged in capacity building where the Sydney Institute of TAFE is providing Korea Polytechnic with ‘train the trainer’ training, ensuring that their trainers and assessors have the skills and qualifications that we now expect ours to have here in Australia.

Another emerging market calling out for more skilled workers as I said before is India. There we're already working on trans-national standards and benchmarking in consultation with industry. The Australian Government has funded a project to map 23 qualifications in the automotive information technology and telecommunication sectors to Indian occupational standards.

Asia being found to be highly aligned and then form the basis for future transnational standards that will enhance the ability of Australian providers to deliver training in those areas as well as the mobility of labour between our two countries. India has a well publicised goal to up-skill millions of its people by 2022. Based on India's updated skills strategy released on 15 July this year, their aim is to up-skill more than 400 million people. This includes more than 100 million in workforce entrance, in requirement of skills training and nearly 300 million existing workers needing skills training, reskilling and up-skilling.

For a long time we've known there were opportunities for Australia and India to collaborate in the skills space. We're already doing this in the higher education sector with more than 400 collaborations between 32 Australian universities and more than 200 Indian institutions and I'm determined to make sure we build on that success in vocational education training space to play a key role in India meeting its targets to skill its workforce in the future.

I'd like to close by again noting that as has been raised in a number of submissions the benefits of international education are two way and go well beyond economic workforce development. TAFE Queensland in their submission put it this way, they said international students from over 90 countries represent an integral part of our population and enrich our campuses with cultural diversity. International education and training creates invaluable and lasting business, research, diplomatic and personal connections that enrich both domestic and international students alike providing the foundations for strong relationships between Australia and other countries.

Our government is securing the future for Australia by ensuring that our education and training system remains one of the best in the world and gives students, both Australian students and international students and their employers and families, the confidence to move toward that future, embracing of Australian education and training. As we work to finalise the national strategy for international education we will create the right environment to get the best possible results for our education and training providers whether they're operating here in Australia or offshore. While we finalise that strategy we're not sitting stiff. We are implementing continued policies that will ensure the strengthening of our sector further. The new simplified visa processing arrangements will come on stream, the research — some of which John spoke of, and others in which Minister Pyne have identified to see and seize new market opportunities in areas like Central and South America are critical to positioning Australia in the right place to succeed in international education in the future.

Because success in international education is a true win-win-win outcome, it's a win for the Australian economy, it's a win for those international students who gain enhanced capacity to take home to their nations, it's a win for Australian students who gain a greater enrichment of their educational experience, it's a win for Australian business whether they're operating here or in the markets where those students return to and ultimately it's a win because more than any other traditional industry, international education comprehensively strengthens our place and our future in the world. We value the diverse benefits it brings and those benefits cannot be understated and that's why as a government we will remain committed and international education will continue to be a central pillar of our plans for a competitive and prosperous future for Australia and I thank you all very much for your interest in this sector, commitment to this sector and ensuring that we can as a nation continue to build a wonderful international education experience and offering that we have into an even better and richer one into the future. Thank you very much for the chance to be here today.


ENDS

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