15 March 2017


Universities Australia welcomes the opportunity to provide input to the development of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Foreign Policy White Paper. 

As the peak body representing Australia’s university sector, Universities Australia strongly advocates that the most important action that the Government can take in maintaining and enhancing international education is to ensure that we can continue to offer a superior ‘product’ that offers value for money and a positive student experience. This requires higher education and research policy stability and adequate public investment.

Underpinning every successful nation is a strong and vibrant university sector.

Not only is the provision of education to international students an industry in its own right, international education and research provided by our universities is a critical pillar that supports Australia’s diplomatic, trade and investment effort. Australian universities have established and are currently managing more than 9,100 formal active agreements with overseas universities and other counterparts. These agreements enable universities to establish crucial research collaborations, facilitate the exchange of staff and students and encourage academic cooperation.

International education is Australia’s third largest export industry and the largest services export, contributing $21.8 billion dollars to the Australian economy in 2016. Of this, international education provided by our universities contributed approximately 67 per cent. 

Australia is the third largest provider of international education after the US and UK, with Australian universities responsible for the education and training of more than 350,000 students in 2015. Our role in fostering the potential of the best and brightest minds from around the region and beyond cannot be understated. In educating our future regional leaders, helping to educate an increasingly international workforce and contributing to the global research effort, our universities are making a massive contribution to Australia’s foreign policy objectives and soft diplomacy. 

Universities, though their course offerings and research programs, have the potential to strengthen networks of cooperation between public policy makers and non-government experts, thus acting as a major contributor to sustained regional stability. Business and industry groups recognise the value of a thriving international education sector as it builds a wealth of talent, supplying skilled labour to fill occupational gaps within the Australian workforce. It also creates a pipeline of talent to supply industries that operate abroad with the advanced skillsets they need.

Despite the significant fiscal benefit of having a thriving international education sector, revenue alone cannot define the value that this sector generates. A strong international education sector enriches Australia socially and culturally, both through offering a more diverse mix of students on campus and in the broader community. Moreover, international education is a source of significant revenue flow through increased tourism.

Australian universities are well placed to address the many social, political and economic challenges that Australia will face over the coming decades, both through deep collaborative networks which contribute to our soft diplomacy efforts, as well as expertise in research, academia and advice on issues related to higher education.

Universities Australia advocates for a move away from traditional discourse, with international education seen primarily as a service industry with a focus on student numbers and revenue. In its place we encourage a more nuanced and comprehensive approach that acknowledges the intersection between international education, diplomatic relationships (soft diplomacy), global research and industry collaboration, and the fundamental importance of maintaining the strength of Australia’s higher education system.


Universities Australia recommends that:

i. The Australian Government ensures policy consistency and adequate level of public investment in universities to maintain and enhance Australia as a destination of choice for international students;

ii. The Australian Government broadens its focus beyond international education as a service delivery export industry to international opportunities for research and industry collaboration;

iii. The Australian Government continues to advocate, through formal bilateral negotiations, for the easing of impediments to transnational education;

iv. The Australian Government supports Australia’s global research ambitions through funding to guarantee a seat at the table on large scale, long term international research projects and partnerships;

v. The Australian Trade and Investment Commission increases resourcing for the promotion of Australian international education and develops a consistent, whole-of-government brand for Australian education;

vi. Consistent and appropriate visa policy settings to maintain Australia in offering a comparative advantage for students and academic staff wishing to study or work overseas;

vii. The Australian Government creates an Indigenous New Colombo Plan award; and

viii. Ensures development of the Foreign Policy White Paper is informed by the work of the National Council for International Education as it moves to implement the International Education Strategy.



Australia has a rich history of international education. As one of the world’s most popular overseas study destinations, we rank third in the world for attracting international students in tertiary education, with around 6 per cent of the market (behind US and UK). 

International education is Australia’s third largest export industry and largest services export, worth around $22 billion to the Australian economy. 

Universities Australia has adopted a philosophy of a ‘third wave’ approach to international education, which emphasises a deeper conception of integration through outbound mobility and collaboration in both education and research. This follows on from the first and second waves of international education; aid education (defined by the Colombo Plan) and mass commercial education.

Australian universities are no longer just providers of quality education to overseas students, but part of a large, globalised higher education system that encourages the reciprocity of ideas, research, curriculum and mobility.

One of the contributing factors underpinning the success of international education in Australia has been the whole-of-government commitment to international education – a commitment other countries have yet to replicate. This commitment has resulted in the release of the National Strategy for International Education, a 10 year plan for developing Australia’s role as a global leader in education, training and research. This strategy was developed as part of a suite of Government initiatives to support international education which included Austrade’s long-term market development roadmap, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Australia Global Alumni Strategy and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s simplified student visa framework.



In the context of international education, there are a number of key markets that Australian universities will be looking to engage with over the coming decade, each with a different purpose. 

Student recruitment is, of course, what drives most university engagement internationally and contributes the most to the Australian economy. In this regard, many institutions will be looking at how to diversify their markets to mitigate the risk of dependence on a few large markets. Students from China and India together comprise more than 40 per cent of international higher education enrolments. Increasing participation in higher education from Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Singapore, all of which have stagnated in recent years, will be important. There may be increasing interest from within Europe, the Middle East and other Western countries in response to Brexit and the election of United States President Trump. Latin America and North Africa are also emerging markets, particularly in relation to postgraduate students.

These geopolitical shifts present opportunities for Australian universities. Consideration must also be given to the fact that traditional market countries such as China and Malaysia have been investing heavily in their respective education systems - both as a means of retaining students within the system as well as attracting new overseas student markets. So while Australia has enjoyed significant ongoing success in attracting international students over the past 10 years, we cannot be complacent. Whole of government support and policy flexibility will be central to our ongoing success.

Transnational education (TNE) also presents new opportunities for many Australian universities. Though a number of universities have longstanding TNE arrangements, including several branch campuses in Singapore, Malaysia, India, China, Vietnam, Italy and the United Arab Emirates, we note that a number of countries, such as Indonesia and India, have begun to position themselves to take advantage of Australian TNE opportunities. Universities Australia recommends that the Australian Government continues to advocate, through formal bilateral negotiations, for policy settings conducive to the development of TNE. This will lead to a greater Australian presence and deliver better educational outcomes, particularly within the Asia-Pacific region. With the Australian Government’s Australian International Education 2025 market development strategy aiming to double the number of international students enrolled in Australian education, it will be important to consider modes of, and locations for, delivery. The provision of education through TNE arrangements will be an important part of this equation.


Traditionally, individual universities have been responsible for efforts to increase Australia’s global research collaboration through institution-to-institution partnerships and relationships. There are, however, many opportunities being lost through the absence of funding to match that provided by overseas governments through publicly-funded programs.

While acknowledging the funding provided for international engagement through the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA), funding to match that available through international programs are not included. This means that Australia is very limited in its ability to gain access to international leveraged funds such as those provided through the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (Horizon2020).

Universities Australia recommends that the Australian Government play a more active role in supporting Australia’s research capabilities and research excellence through funding specifically for large scale, long term international collaboration which capitalises on Australia’s research strength and existing infrastructure. Where funding has been made available Australia has been able to engage in strong and productive collaborative endeavours in areas such as astronomy, molecular biology and marine science. Without this support Australia wouldn’t have the required resources and capacity. Modest Government funding will result in significant research breakthroughs and access to international funding and expertise.

Much of Australia’s foreign engagement is focused on aid and development, particularly the small funds available for international cooperation. More needs to be done. We are missing opportunities with Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada, countries with whom we share many of the same social, political and academic challenges and where there would be significant benefit in increasing cooperation between our sectors. Scholarships at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level in support of students from both developing and developed economies would add significantly to the mobility of students wishing to study in Australia.


Globally, political uncertainty is having an increasing impact on domestic policy in Australia. Concerns around national security and immigration have the potential to cause further unrest and potential policy change and instability. Changes to our immigration and visa settings, as well as prevailing social attitudes toward international visitors and residents, plays out in international media. In 2009 the international student crisis saw a significant decrease in the number of international student enrolments and a subsequent drop in the value of international education as an export in Australia.

It is important for the Australian Government to recognise that changes to Australia’s domestic and foreign policy settings can have unintended impacts on the international education sector. Understanding the interplay between domestic and foreign policy should be a fundamental consideration of the foreign policy White Paper. 

Australian universities are well placed to address the many social, political and economic challenges that Australia will face over the coming decades, both through deep collaborative networks which contribute to our soft diplomacy efforts, and through expertise in research, academia and advice on issues related to higher education, such as supporting the development of free trade and other bilateral agreements. 

Continued predictable investment in university research, particularly funding for international research collaboration, will ensure that our universities can continue to be at the forefront in meeting both domestic and global needs. Innovation and research are shaping government policies and influencing investment around the world, in recognition of the role that research and development plays in ensuring economic prosperity. China, the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan and Singapore, as well as many other nations, are investing heavily in programs to boost their national research capabilities. 

Australian universities are central to the nation’s innovation efforts. University research has added $10 billion to Australia’s GDP each year for the last thirty years, equivalent to one-third of the growth in our living standards over those decades. As a nation, Australia produces around 3.9 per cent of the world’s research with only 0.3 per cent of the world’s population, which highlights the strength and capacity of our researchers. The total value of Australian research is estimated at $160 billion – more than the entire value of Australia’s mining industry. With global competitiveness increasingly linked to a nation’s research output and investment in innovation, we encourage the Government to implement policy settings that foster greater research collaboration, to benefit of our national prosperity, to ensure we remain internationally competitive and to boost our international cooperation.


International education has maintained stable growth over the past 10 years and has underpinned Australia’s economic growth in a time when other sectors, such as mining and manufacturing, have been flat lining or in decline. The Australian Government has repeatedly acknowledged education as central to our economic and social prosperity, from former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s inclusion of education in his promotion of the “five pillar economy”, to current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s positioning of Australia as a “knowledge economy” and home of innovation, through programs such as the National Science and Innovation Agenda. International education and research collaboration are at the heart of Australia’s continuing success. 

The need to ensure the long-term future and stability of Australia’s higher education system through a sustained and informed program of higher education policy transformation, including in international education, is critical. Maintaining Australia’s reputation as a leading provider of high-quality education with a focus on delivering a positive student experience should be among the top priorities of the Australian Government’s foreign policy objectives.

According to the 2016 International Student Survey, the top five factors for deciding to study in Australia were the reputation of the qualification (95 per cent), the reputation of the education system in Australia (94 per cent), personal safety and security (93 per cent), the quality of research (92 per cent) and the reputation of the higher education provider (92 per cent) . Australia fairs comparably in relation to higher education student satisfaction with support services and the learning environment (89 and 87 per cent respectively), however, we are above global standards in relation to satisfaction with living and arrival orientation (88 and 91 per cent respectively). This highlights the importance of ensuring the integrity of the Australian international education sector through policies, which encourage positive student experiences and recognise the role that universities play in the student experience.

Though we commend the Government’s recent push to recognise the contribution of international education through initiatives such as the National Strategy for International Education, support for the international education portfolio is inadequate, particularly when compared with that provided for international tourism. According to Tourism Research Australia, international tourism contributed approximately $34.2 billion to the Australian economy in 2015-16 . However, $18.2 billion is attributable to international education through education related personal travel . When taking education-related travel into account, the contribution of international education far exceeds the contribution of international travel despite the significantly greater resourcing for the promotion of the tourism sector.

The Australian Trade and Investment Commission, the Australian Government’s primary mechanism for the promotion of Australian services, received $240 million from the Australian Government in 2015-16 to support the promotion of Australia’s exports and other international economic interests including international education. This compares to $144 million provided to Tourism Australia alone during the same period . There is no dedicated government-funded international education body that has the same remit as Tourism Australia, despite many other countries having a similar body (for example, the British Council or the German Academic Exchange Service). This puts us at a distinct disadvantage compared with many of our overseas counterparts and competitors.

Universities Australia recommends that the Australian Trade and Investment Commission increases the resourcing available to promote international education, and develops a consistent, whole-of-government brand for Australian education that builds on the existing Future Unlimited strategy.



Ensuring stability within the international education sector requires maintaining consistent and appropriate visa policy settings that do not discourage students from coming to Australia. Australia’s reputation for delivering high quality education is primarily attributable to our Universities. Visa policies that negatively impact on our universities’ ability to attract students will affect the number of international students coming to Australia. 

The introduction in July 2016 of the risk-assessment driven Simplified Student Visa Framework (SSVF) and the Streamlined Visa Processing (SVP) system it replaced, has made it considerably easier for legitimate prospective international students to study at Australian universities. We note, however, that there have been significant issues since the introduction of the SSVF. Some of the problems are due to the overlay of extra security-related screening measures.

The level of uncertainty around visa processing times for those students requiring extra screening has presented issues for particular cohorts of higher degree by research (HDR) students, some of whom are studying through foreign government-funded scholarships. Anecdotally, we know that many of these students are looking elsewhere to study because of the prolonged delays in visa processing times. Moreover, international sponsors who provide funding for HDR students to study in Australia are questioning Australia’s commitment to international education.

The attraction and retention of highly qualified individuals relies on immigration and citizenship pathways that can be easily navigated. Current exemptions to the Australian Citizenship Act, which are designed to facilitate academic employment, are perversely acting as a deterrent for Australian universities who wish to employ suitably qualified academics and senior university leaders from overseas. Minor changes to the exemptions through the use of the term “academic” rather than “scientist” under Section 22C of the Act, or the broadening of the skills and age exemption under the Direct Entry stream for Permanent Residency would provide Australian universities with means to attract world class academics and university leaders to Australia and maintain the quality of Australia’s university sector. Our ability to attract the best and brightest is crucial in maintaining our international education reputation, making it important to have greater transparency and stability in visa policy settings for students and staff.

To achieve this, greater coordination is required between the various departments responsible for both the administration of student visas and the promotion of international education, including the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Department of Education and Training and the Attorney General’s Department.


Australia has a long history in the provision of international education from the inception of the original Colombo Plan to the present current mass education system. As a result, our international education sector has built a large network of global alumni with a deep understanding of Australia’s social, cultural and political values. Australia’s international alumni are a significant asset for the benefit of our foreign policy objectives. Universities Australia commends the government on the development of the Australia Global Alumni Strategy 2016-2020 as part of the broader suite of initiatives related to the National Strategy for International Education. The alumni strategy has the potential to tap into the networks of global alumni and utilise their experience and understanding of Australia to better promote international education. 

The New Colombo Plan (NCP), launched in 2014, has set the standard in increasing outward-bound student mobility and increasing regional engagement. The Australian Government’s commitment to increasing the availability of short-term programs and Government prioritisation of study within the Asia Pacific (first through the AsiaBound program and now through the New Colombo Plan), has meant that Asia is now the most popular region for international experiences. Universities Australia encourages the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to give consideration to the merits of expanding the program beyond its current focus on undergraduate students to provide opportunity for postgraduate students.

Learning abroad is an important contributing factor to enhancing the student experience and employability. Record numbers of Australian university students are electing to study overseas as part of their course, driven in part by a range of university and government scholarship and loan programs. However, Indigenous students remain underrepresented in learning abroad programs, and more work needs to be done to lift the level of participation. 

Universities Australia encourages the Australian Government to increase the level of support available to help lift international mobility and exchanges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. In part this could be achieved through the creation of an Indigenous New Colombo Plan award, akin to the Endeavour Research Fellowship for Indigenous Australians. Our counterpart organisations in New Zealand and Canada have a shared desire to increase international mobility and exchange opportunities for Indigenous students, and to pursue any opportunities that support collaboration and mobility between our regions is greatly encouraged.


Universities Australia recommends that the development of the Foreign Policy White Paper be informed by the work of the National Council for International Education as it moves to implement the International Education Strategy. It is important that the recommendations made in the White Paper align with the goals of the National Strategy to ensure consistency, avoid overlap, and reinforce the Government’s international education policy objectives.

Universities Australia as the national peak body representing Australia’s universities has agreed, through the signing of an MOU with the Department of Foreign Affairs, to assist in the promotion of Australian education opportunities and to work collaboratively on agreed priority programs relevant to Australia’s international education system. Sector peak bodies such as Universities Australia are well placed to serve as a portal for DFAT’s engagement with the university sector on key strategic, policy and programmatic issues, particularly where whole of sector coordination can assist the work of DFAT and its agencies. This role is of particular importance in advancing the interests of Australian universities through the exchange of information on existing market access barriers in third country markets and identification of new opportunities through bilateral and multilateral trade negotiations.