q&a with austrade chief executive stephanie fahey

23 February 2017

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The new head of Austrade, Dr Stephanie Fahey is passionate about the value of Australia’s universities.

She should know, she used to help run one

The first female head of Austrade has both experience in education, as well as in the commercial world, making her well equipped to see how education and research underpins Australia’s trade mission.

In one of her first interviews, HIGHER ED.ITION spoke with Dr Fahey about her priorities for Austrade and the need to support and grow Australia’s third largest export – international education.

Education is now worth a record $21.8 billion to the national economy. How important is it as part of the broader trade and investment portfolio of Austrade?

International education is Australia’s third-largest export and it’s our number one services export. 

Looking at our national economy, services account for around 70 per cent while exports of services make up around 22 per cent. So there is a lot of scope to grow that part of our trade portfolio and I believe international education will be very significant in that process. 

But more broadly, international education underpins our trade and investment portfolio in many different ways.

International education continually brings people from overseas into the Australian economy. Not only do they create jobs – there are 130,000 jobs attached to international education – but international education also has a huge multiplier effect across the whole economy. 

So it is not only those who are being employed directly at universities and other education providers – it is driving key industries like tourism.

If we want to grow other services exports, higher education matters there too.

Take for example health. If you look at the Nobel Prizes that Australians have won, they have largely been in clinical medicine.

Health and medical research is just one area where we are absolutely world class. 

Fundamentally, that means the future of our health services exports is underpinned by our universities.

How do you think your background in the university sector will shape the way you position Austrade over the coming years?

It’s not just my role in universities directly, but in the commercial world too. I have seen the kinds of work universities do through my time at EY as the Lead Partner for Education.

We worked together with universities across Australia in areas like improving university performance, redesigning student services, commercialising research and supporting emerging edutech startups.

During my time at Monash University, I had a lot to do with international student recruitment, as well as developing international research collaboration.

I’ve also worked on sociology-economic research on the Asia-Pacific Region and worked with businesses to help them gain a better cultural understanding as they develop industry ties in the region.

So I’ve had a broad set of experiences, across the commercial and university sectors. This will help inform my role at Austrade which already has a very long history of supporting the sector.

Australian universities are very experienced internationally and have been on the front foot in terms of developing global ties.

I see the role of Austrade in helping enable the higher education sector focus on - insight and intelligence, showcasing excellence, and highlighting emerging education technology opportunities. 

Current and targeted advice from Austrade's network on learner needs in-market, and changing preferences for accessing education can inform both the international strategy of our education providers and also their approach to innovative product development and pathways. 

This will foster ongoing sustainable growth, considering a more diverse range of markets. 

Austrade can further enable the sector by showcasing excellence, and helping to build international recognition of Australia's brand. Universities play a central role in fostering innovation - and like all aspects of Australia's trade, services, investment and tourism strengths, Austrade can profile these to the world. 

This innovation space is a great opportunity for Austrade's role to influence and be influenced by universities. 

For example, as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, there are five landing pads set up around the world in Berlin, San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Shanghai and Singapore.

They are there to receive export-ready Australian startups and provide local mentors.

And there are a number of universities that are very proactive at working with Australian industry who are looking at those same markets where our landing pads are located.

So Austrade plays a complementary role as part of the ecosystem – among industry, universities and the research organisations like CSIRO.

Across all those stakeholders, we need to ensure that we have an integrated approach so that we don’t waste any of the precious dollars that we have to sponsor our research and development.

The role for Austrade is to coordinate with other parts of government to help support the higher education sector in these endeavours.

What are the broad benefits of a strong international education sector to Australia’s trade with the rest of the world?

International education is a people to people business.

And trade is a people to people business.

Universities, through their graduates, help create a trading network for Australia. That gives us access to people within those markets that know Australia and want to work with Australia.

Those hundreds of thousands of alumni scattered around the world are not only important from a trade perspective but also for investment.

These international students might return home after graduation and work in multinational companies, they might work in their governments. If they have knowledge of Australia and of the Australian economy, they are then aware of the opportunities and can bring investments to Australia.

Because education is a high contact industry – it’s actually fundamental to a lot of the work that we do in trade and investment.

There is currently a considerable focus in Government on the role that international education plays in advancing national prosperity, with initiatives such as the National Strategy for International Education.

How will you foster synergy between the work of Austrade and major initiatives such as that strategy and the Foreign Policy White Paper?

We now have a Council for International Education with six ministers from different portfolios.

I think it’s the first time that we have had such a prominent group with a focus on international education.

Certainly, Austrade is part of that but it’s great to see the Australian Government, as a whole, taking international education very seriously.

We also now have in place: the National Strategy for International Education, the Australian International Education 2025 Roadmap, the Global Alumni Strategy and the National Innovation and Science Agenda. 

These are four significant policy statements that have arisen from very broad consultations with the sector.
They give Austrade a platform to work with the various stakeholders.

I’m really excited about the progress we have made in Australia, and I think Austrade has an important part to play in all of that.

The Council for International Education provides one forum for industry to share its views about Australia's future international engagement. The development of the Foreign Policy White Paper provides another such opportunity. Trade, investment, tourism and international education linkages are fundamental elements of our foreign policy.

Austrade is committed to working with the higher education sector and I intend to further strengthen our good relationships there.