‘Foreign students contributed an unprecedented $16.6 billion in 2014’

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New thinking needed to grow international education in Australia

The growth in demand for Australia’s world class educational and vocational training from countries in the Asia Pacific reflects the humanitarian miracle unfolding in our region.

We were recently reminded of the vital importance of international education to our economy with new figures showing foreign students contributed an unprecedented $16.6 billion in 2014 – our fourth biggest export overall.

The prospects for further growth are obvious but the challenges are also formidable given the competition from our key competitors like the US, UK, Germany, France and Canada.

Currently, we have about six per cent share of higher education students globally and have seen 15 per cent growth over the past year. In the vocational education and training (VET) space we have seen 20 per cent growth. The fundamental question is this: Are we in a position to accommodate continued growth of this scale and at the same time increase global market share?

There is no doubt we have the potential to do it but the need for ongoing innovation in the marketing of our brand and delivery of high-quality content, along with continued investment, are critical.

While China has long been our number one market the demand from across the region is quickly growing in large part driven by an exploding middle class. The changing face of the market can be seen in figures showing that over the past 12 years India has gone from our ninth biggest market to second, Vietnam 17th to fourth, the Philippines 38th to 14th and so on.

In terms of student numbers, latest figures show that enrolments from India are up 55 per cent, Taiwan up 28 per cent, Vietnam up 26 per cent, Philippines up 17 per cent, China up 15 per cent and Malaysia 13 per cent.

India is our top VET market having grown 27 per cent in the past year alone and the demand for international education that is set to come down the line from the sub-continent over the next decade will be phenomenal.

As part of his inspiring economic transformation plan, Prime Minister Modi has set his country the task of skilling and training 500 million Indians by 2022.

Early this year I led a 450-strong business mission to India, which included strong representation from our higher education, training and skills sectors. The determination within India to address its economic development challenges was palpable.

India is looking to back its strengths and become the world’s leading centre for low cost, labour intensive manufacturing, under its ‘Make in India’ campaign. It is looking to create hundreds-of-millions of jobs and increase productivity, underpinned by major investments in innovation and infrastructure.

In many regards, we can expect from India a repeat of what we have seen from China over the past 15 years. The scope for growth in our overall two-way trading relationship is clear when you consider our two-way trade with India is around $15.5 billion, compared to $160 billion with China – two countries with one billion-plus populations.

We share much in common with India beyond a love of cricket, including democratic institutions and the English language. India – with as many as 350 million English-speaking citizens – is challenging the US as the world’s leading English-speaking country.

It explains the logic in us looking to conclude a bilateral economic trade and investment agreement by the end of this year. Services, including education and training are a key focus of our negotiations.

As mentioned, in higher education, we have seen 15 per cent growth in the past year, translating into record commencements of about 100,000. We are also seeing a shift in demand towards Masters as opposed to Bachelor degrees. This highlights how the market is forever evolving.

Sure, we can look to increase the number of students studying in Australia. Last year, we welcomed more than 400,000 from over 150 markets. But, the potential exists to be teaching up to 10 million students within the region – within 10 years – if we adopt a wide range of different models across higher education, VET and secondary levels; the majority requiring some form of presence in the various markets.

Many providers are already beginning to expand their physical footprints off-shore through the development of campuses and partnerships. In secondary education, for instance, Haileybury in 2013 opened a spectacular campus outside Beijing to educate Chinese students through to Year 12. This will be a feeder school through to Australian universities.

The ‘study in Australia’ model will only address a fraction of the global demand for higher skills.  There are many potential students who cannot travel to Australia but still require skills and training.

The challenge for the sector is to engage millions of people in their own country through offshore delivery and by harnessing the power of digital technologies. Australia has well-established expertise in distance education, including online, and we can build on that foundation.

We know, for example, that employers and their workers don’t always require a full qualification.  Often what they want is a partial qualification or proven skill that may or may not be accredited, but which is still delivered with the high quality for which Australian education is renowned.

The advent of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs a few years ago demonstrates the power of online technology.  While the initial emphasis was on tertiary courses, they can be applied to vocational skills and training for overseas students.

Blended education models will also have increasing appeal where for instance the majority of a course could be delivered in a student’s home country complemented by perhaps a flagship course or semester in Australia. In turn, Australian students can do likewise in a partnership educational institute.

We also need to work hard at adapting Australian vocational skills and training content to international needs. To their great credit, Australian providers are always trying new ways to deliver their product.

As a government we are innovating too; testing approaches that may assist the delivery of Australian skills in-market.

Late last year, for example, the government launched three innovative training products based on Australia’s training packages in India.  These look at ways to train and assess workers and will be trialled by a number of Australian public and private providers in India over the next 12 months.

During our business mission to India, Australian Trade Commission (Austrade) teams in India and the Middle East briefed me on the opportunity for Australian providers to upgrade the skills of Indian workers who are preparing to work in the Middle East and Gulf States. Lateral thinking will create new opportunities.

These goals demand close cooperation between the sector and governments. I have tasked Austrade to work with Australia’s international education sector during 2015, including with non-traditional players, to develop a long-term market development strategy out to 2025.

This will unearth new thinking and initiatives to support the potential for growth.  It will complement the work of Federal Education and Training Minister, Christopher Pyne, who is currently finalising a broader national strategy for the international education sector.

A spectacular opportunity lies before us. The real test is working out ways to make the most of it.

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