Address to Roundtable on International Education

  • Speech, E&OE

This event brings back memories of March 2013 when the Coalition, in opposition at the time, convened a roundtable to discuss an idea I had about reversing the original Colombo Plan and introducing the New Colombo Plan and I'll come to that later. A number in this room were instrumental in supporting what has become a signature foreign policy initiative of the Abbott Government.

As a former Education Minister and now as Foreign Minister I'm acutely aware of the transformative power of international student exchange and an international education experience, not just for the individual student who of course benefits from new perspectives and insights and ideas and skills that they acquire, but for the host country and receiving country.

What a brilliant way to engage with other countries through education. It fosters understanding of each other's cultures and politics and economy and social life, it is just one of the most pure forms of soft power diplomacy.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has long been involved in promoting international education. Indeed back in 1951 it was the then Foreign Minister Percy Spender who signed Australia up to the original Colombo Plan. Our thinking behind this was to provide young people from war-torn countries after the Second World War with an opportunity to gain qualifications in Australia's universities and higher education institutions and then go back to their countries and help the nation building that was underway after the Second World War.

So the Colombo Plan was a brilliant scheme and for over 30 years the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade ran the Colombo Plan here and about 40,000 students from our region and beyond, studied in Australia under the Colombo Plan. As I and my Ministerial colleagues travel throughout our region in particular, we are all struck by the number of political or business or community leaders whose understanding and appreciation of Australia comes from the fact that they were a Colombo Plan scholar.

We then embraced the concept of the Australia Awards and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade now administers the Australia Awards with the Department of Education and these are scholarships and fellowships which engage Australia in the global community. This year about 5000 recipients of scholarships and fellowships will be in Australia under the Australia Awards.

Since 2007, 30,000 people have studied in Australia under these fellowships and scholarships, 30,000 people now back in their countries, having had what must be a positive experience here in Australia.

So we see the enormous benefit in international and educational exchange - which brings me to the New Colombo Plan - a particular passion of mine.

I do want to thank those on the Reference Group, a number of them are here today, for the vision they had, back when we were in opposition, to support this concept of providing an opportunity for young Australian undergraduates to live and study and work in our region. And if I might say so, it was a blueprint in public policy development from opposition because we held the roundtable here in March 2013 and from that roundtable came an advisory group; from that advisory group came a whole series of consultations; we were then able to develop a report which the Advisory Group handed to me just prior to the election and when we won the election I was able to hand that document to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and say this is what we want to implement.

By December of 2013 we were in discussions with the universities and with other countries. The first students left in late December, early 2014 and our pilot program of four locations – Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Indonesia was an overwhelming success. We are now partnering with 38 countries in our region, all universities are involved in Australia, we have partnerships with universities in the region and by the end of 2016 almost 10,000 young Australians will have experienced an overseas study experience under the New Colombo Plan. So I think that is an outstanding effort on the part of the team at DFAT but also our universities and the international education sector who backed it.

One point I must make, this is different from other schemes because of the work experience component in it and we are working very closely with the private sector, with NGOs and with other governments to provide opportunities for our young people to spend time actually working or undertaking some kind of practicum in another country and that is what really sets it apart.

In terms of our relationships with other countries, it has been incredibly successful and so warmly embraced by the leaders of countries who are partnering with Australia. When you hear President Xi Jinping refer to the New Colombo Plan in his address to the joint sitting of the Parliament during his visit here, when it is raised by the Singaporean President Tony Tan in his national speeches, when Prime Minister Abe raises it as the first issue in bilateral discussions between Australia and Japan you know that it has captured the imagination of our region.

And I believe that this will be a hallmark of foreign policy under the Abbott Government - this is how we have engaged with Asia by investing in our young people and of course the more our young people go overseas and meet friends and build networks and friendships, the more likely they are to bring other students back, so it really is that two-way exchange.

We are very conscious of the need to maintain alumni connections and we are working on a formal alumni program which will be launched later this year, the Alumni Network. We currently have, under preparation, an interactive online website called 'The Network' and this is to link in the universities, the Department, businesses and the students so that any opportunities and other information can be exchanged. And I think it is just a great way of keeping connected because quite frankly these young people will be our Ambassadors, they will open doors for us in years to come and it's a very important part of Australian diplomacy.

Could I just make some comments on behalf of Minister Andrew Robb, as Christopher said, he very much wanted to be here today and he has responsibility for Austrade's role in the international promotion of Australian international education.

While the Australian education sector has performed strongly, and as Christopher points out it is one of our major export items, the Australian Government believes there is potential for further growth onshore and offshore.

In January Minister Robb led a 450-strong business mission to India, including representatives from your sectors. India is our second largest source of students, our top vocational educational training market and it should be noted Prime Minister Modi has set a target of skilling and training 500 million Indian citizens by 2022 so demand is going to be huge. Australia can assist India particularly through in-country arrangements this way many more Indian workers and students can receive Australian educational training at home.

Minister Robb confirms that the Government is looking to include bilateral economic trade and investment agreement with India by the end of the year. Services including educational training are a key focus of those negotiations.

The number of international students [inaudible] continues to grow and Australia must share that growth and as Christopher mentioned Latin America and also the Gulf States as well as continued growth in Australia's major source countries.

Like India, many countries have ambitious skill goals so in market demand will grow too. Austrade has developed a 10-year market development plan called Australian international education 2025 or AIE 2025 and the plan is strongly aligned with Minister Pyne's draft national strategy, particularly pillar 3 that is staying competitive.

In setting Austrade's task the Government has two ambitions for the next 10 years. First, to double the number of international students and study visitors in Australia and to diversify our source countries and fields of study, and secondly to reach up to 10 million people through offshore delivery of Australian education, skills and training. I won't go into further details but Minister Robb considers these ambitions are achievable and sustainable and the offshore efforts by Australian providers is growing and many of whom are private providers.

There are challenges – quality, education infrastructure, accommodation, employment, convincing the broader community of the benefits and the integration of students into the Australian community and we don't dismiss these challenges but the benefits are overwhelming, they are too great to ignore. There are also external challenges, our major source countries are building their own educational training sectors, and like us our competitors are seeking growth.

For example, the United States is considering the introduction of six-year post study work rights for international students in science.

Many of you have already been involved in Austrade led consultations. The mood of the participants is positive but also conscious that growth must be sustainable. So to assist the sector to capture future opportunities and to meet the two ambitions Minister Robb wanted me to let you know that he has tasked Austrade to direct its 85 posts to be alert to offshore opportunities for Australia and to provide insights from the market – to think more broadly about education, skills and training, to promote Australia's high quality education and training and to assist providers in market and to seek education opportunities in its investment and trade group, for example, in R&D commercialisation.

Onshore, Minister Robb wants Austrade to continue to talk with the sector about your plans, identifying new providers including non-traditional and new players and assist providers in identifying viable business models for particular offshore markets.

So Austrade is there to assist the sector but it is your organisations that will have to decide which and how many students you recruit, how many collaborations you enter, how many offshore contracts you pursue, how you protect your reputation through consistent, high-quality services. So that's the message from Minister Robb.

Likewise I want to assure you that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is deeply committed to working with your sector through our Australia Awards, through our New Colombo Plan and collaborating with the Department of Education to ensure that international education – both students coming to Australia and Australian students going into our region remains a key foreign policy focus for us and one of our priorities.

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