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Thank you for the invitation to speak to the Committee today.
While the terms of reference for this committee are broad, I am going to restrict my comments to the contribution universities make to Australia’s national prosperity through the provision of education services to international students.
I would like to begin my remarks by saying that international education is an Australian success story.
It’s the product of more than six decades of dedicated work by universities to build Australia’s international education system from the ground up.
It’s been helped enormously by a sustained whole-of-government strategy, with strong cross-party support, though bodies like the Council for International Education. The Council includes six federal ministers with diverse portfolios and policy area, the combined efforts of which will continue to build on our success.
We all know that centre of gravity of the world’s middle-class has shifted to Asia, with rapidly growing numbers of people seeking quality higher education.
At the centre of the region we are very well positioned to deliver that world class education.
International education delivers huge benefits to Australia. International education is now our nation’s fourth largest export sector after iron ore, coal and natural gas, contributing $40 billion to our economy in 2019.
And the benefits are not just economic. International education enriches our campuses and delivers a worldwide network of informal ambassadors for Australia. It enables us to build enduring relationships both within our region and further abroad, acting as an important conduit of ‘soft power’.
And the economic benefits flow into the wider community, not only universities. Of the $40 billion that international students contribute to the Australian economy, $17.3 billion goes to universities and other education providers in fees, and the remaining $22.8 billion is injected into local economies—supporting 259,000 jobs across the nation.
It must be noted that international students do not ‘take the place’ of—or disadvantage the entry prospects of—Australian students.
Universities have entirely separate funding and allocation arrangements for local versus international students.
How Universities Diversify
The focus of this committee’s inquiry is to understand whether there is a need for Australia to diversify its trade markets and foreign investment profile. I would like to take some time to discuss the ways in which Australia’s universities are diversifying their student body and some of the challenges inherent in that process.
As part of their business planning, every university is constantly scanning the horizon and thinking about diversification and the nurturing of new markets alongside maintaining the ones it currently serves. This was the case well before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each university approaches diversification differently, according to their own circumstances including their existing student profiles, their priorities and their budgets.
Universities all have their individual student recruitment plans, tailored to account for their strengths and overall strategic directions. These student recruitment strategies are not developed in isolation—they are part of the universities’ broader planning frameworks.
There is a varied approach towards either growing, consolidating or maintaining current loads of international students across the sector.
But diversification doesn’t just mean diversifying by country. It can also be achieved through the range of offerings and courses that are being provided to students. For instance, Australian international education has expanded from focusing largely on undergraduate courses, to increasing participation in Masters and post-graduate coursework programs.
We are also seeing some of the most rapid growth in international student numbers from countries other than China—growth from India and Nepal has been very strong. Other sectors are seeing continued interest from particular Latin America nations.
This work is paying off as Government data shows us that Australian universities host students from at least 142 countries.
To complement this form of diversification, over the decades Australian universities have also established more than 700 offshore programs and campuses, in countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Vietnam. This offers a different set of experiences for international students who may wish to pursue an Australian qualification closer to home.
In 2018, more than 100,000 students were being educated in offshore programs or in conjunction with overseas partners—this was around a quarter of our entire university international student cohort.
Asia’ Burgeoning Middle Class
Of course, we acknowledge that a significant number of Australia’s international students come from two countries—India and China.
Because of the size of China’s population—1.3 billion people—no matter where Chinese students go internationally, they’re always likely to be well-represented.
Asia’s middle class is growing and with that grows the demand for higher skills and education.
In 2015, Asia’s middle class was made up of 1.3 billion people.
By 2030, it’s predicted that more than 70 per cent of China’s population will be middle class—this will be around 3.4 billion people. This will represent two-thirds of the world’s total middle-class population.
While a proportion of that middle class will be educated at home, or within Asia, a significant proportion will always be interested in an overseas qualification, particularly from an English-speaking country that is close to home.
So by every measure, Australia’s international education system has been a success.
As a sector, we not only provide high-quality education to hundreds of thousands of global young people, but add significantly to Australia’s economy and enables us to build meaningful relationships with the world around us.