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Keynote speech from Vicki Thomson to the Australia China Education and Tourism Symposium 2023 New Beginnings

October 25, 2023

25 October 2023

It is my great pleasure to be here today at the Australia China Education and Tourism Symposium – New Beginnings.

Can I just say, my love of China goes back many decades and I have made so many productive visits there for work, including very recently as a delegate in the 7th Australia-China High Level Dialogue led by former Trade Minister, Craig Emerson earlier this year, and I’ve holidayed there with my family.

Basically, you can’t keep me away, whether as a Higher Education Chief Executive, a one-time member of the Government’s Australia-China Council, or as a tourist.

And this point is particularly relevant given that this is an Education and Tourism symposium. Just a sidebar – I note that the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade released its interim report last week as part of its inquiry into Australia’s tourism and international education sectors – I appeared before this Committee and the Go8 made a submission.

I know our following speaker will delve into this topic more deeply BUT – it’s worth noting that the spend in Australia by education visitors from China is larger than the TOTAL spend by ALL visitors from the US and the UK combined.

Supporting that statement in the report is an analysis undertaken by the ANZ on tourism spend which found that Chinese students and tourists spent $12 billion in Australia each year before the pandemic and that Chinese tourists spent about $9,000 per visitor in financial year 2019 – more than three times what tourists from other countries spent.

There is an inextricable link between the two sectors. BUT the inquiry commented that Federal Governments have, for many years, spent far more promoting the general tourism sector than international education which is the largest single source of foreign tourists.

All of which makes me say that today’s theme is eminently sensible and of course equally positive.

After all, what sector in either of our two countries has not needed new beginnings since the pandemic?

I’m sure there’ll be great anticipation ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit to China next month – the announcement of which coincided nicely with timing of this symposium.

Business, industry and the community both here and in China will be watching eagerly for signs of progress to removing impediments to trade. Some sectors have had to be more patient than others, but all have been impacted in one way or another.
The time those new beginnings are taking to work through our economies and importantly, the employment effects for the Go8’s high quality graduates within both nations, does of course vary.

The Go8 tends to pay significant attention to any new beginnings in China’s employment numbers.
We do so because 86 per cent of our Chinese-born graduates return home to work – busting the myth most stay in Australia. Only 14 per cent do.

We wish more of those quality graduates would stay here to assist with areas of skills shortage.

Bluntly we need them to.

Equally bluntly we would have an awful lot more knowledge about China itself if we did enable those graduates to stay.

There is a current paucity of such knowledge, and that is something to despair of when China is our lead trading partner and likely to remain so.

We cannot walk away from considering China knowledge – and Asia literacy more broadly – important because there have been some recent unresolved issues between the two nations.

I will return to this vital point later in my speech.

I will do so because if there is one new beginning, we most definitely need to be successful, it is this one.

Briefly returning to the pandemic,

I must acknowledge that the universities which I represent here today – Australia’s leading research-intensive universities – the Group of Eight – did not suffer setbacks to the same extent as other university groups, or economic sectors coming out of the pandemic, nor from some of the very recent, very public geopolitical tensions between Australia and China.

As a former Australian Ambassador to China, Geoff Raby said to me recently as part of our debate@go8 podcast series – the Go8 withstood the “powerful body blows” the Australia-China relationship has been dealt in recent years.

And it is important to state that this was not because of luck – far from it.

It came, quite simply from three things – mutual trust, determination, and the high quality of what we consistently deliver, both in education and research.

During COVID for example, we were absolutely determined to maintain a strong relationship with our Chinese students and researchers – a relationship which by the way goes back 100 years.

And so we did that, with support from the Chinese Government, which temporarily relaxed its rules regarding online delivery.

And as a result, post COVID, our onshore Chinese student enrolment numbers have increased. The Go8 now educates four out of five quality students here from China.

In fact, the Go8 share of the China market has increased year on year and is 36 per cent higher than last year.

Plus, the Go8’s research relationships with China – built from many decades of mutual trust and respect – remain as strong as ever and are the backbone of the Go8 statement that research is without borders. The best research teams embrace partners from across the globe.

This is an excellent forum for me to add as an aside that our research with China has a wide reach – from lifesaving medical discoveries to life changing agricultural research.

Such as the world first study on the impact of pollutants on infants that could help prevent the leading cause of death of infants and young children around the world – thanks to a collaboration between researchers from Monash University, Peking University and China’s National Research Institute for Family Planning.

Or the joint research program to improve farm productivity and sustainability – led by the University of Melbourne, with researchers from the University of Sydney and UWA, working alongside ten Chinese partners including the Chinese Agricultural University, Chinese Academy of Sciences and Nanjing Agricultural University.

In any discussion about global research collaboration, you’d expect me to acknowledge the elephant (or dragon) in the room – so yes, of course, there is always a need to protect sensitive research, with any and all of our research partners.

We are alive to the challenges that come with changing geopolitical circumstances –

we must prioritise national security and at the Go8 we do. We work with Government, security agencies – and we listen, we build tall fences around small paddocks.

indeed I am a founding member of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce – a joint taskforce with government and security agencies.

But we can and we must walk together with our eyes wide open.

In 2023, we must never forget – or ignore – that the world is interconnected as never before and we cannot anticipate what the next roadblock is over the horizon, such as another pandemic or a geopolitical issue.

In higher education we know we can best prepare for over the horizon roadblocks by maintaining trust with those we do business with; by determination to persevere throughout, and by ensuring we deliver high quality offerings, be they graduates, researchers or research outcomes.

We can do that best when we understand the world, and specifically – our region.

All of this must be a two-way street.

For the Go8 it always has been – which is why we were welcome in China – to ensure mutually beneficial outcomes in the years when our Government was not.
We must always share knowledge and skills and work to ensure employment for the best and brightest graduates, in valuable jobs, in the sectors where they are needed and can best make a contribution to our economies and societies.

After all, these graduates and our valuable research, are for the benefit of global communities – a new drug, a new technology, a pest free crop, safe water.

Last week I attended the ACBC celebration to mark its 50th birthday!

And of course we are commemorating just over 50 years of diplomatic relations between Australia and China.

For the Go8, those relations began 100 years ago.

The Australia-China education partnership began with the first Chinese student to study in Australia.

It was in 1923 that N.Y Shah came to the University of Sydney to study teaching.

This partnership has gone from strength to strength.

Today, international university education, especially between China and the Go8 is one of Australia’s greatest trade success stories, and it all began with that first Chinese student.

As we discuss new beginnings today, it is the right forum to make the point that the Go8 delivers a top offering.

We are Australia’s leaders in higher education and vitally we are not and never will be degree factories – far from it.

We are at the opposite end of the graduate spectrum from that. Rather we prepare quality, career ready graduates.

We are Australia’s research leaders. We are world class, undertaking 70 per cent of all university research in Australia and we invest $7.7 billion into that research annually.

China recognises quality and that is why it wants to do business with the Go8.

So, for all of the above reasons it was with some surprise and concern that I read the relatively recent report by the Australian Academy of the Humanities on the knowledge capability of our universities in relation to China.

It concluded that Australia’s expertise – China knowledge – is slipping.

Co-author of the report, UQ Chancellor, former diplomat and former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese said at the time that we need to know China better and I quote:

“Universities and governments must lead this process, partly because the most intensive services-sector relations with China are in education, but business has an important role. A collaborative effort across sectors can significantly improve Australia’s long-term China capability.

“Challenges are also opportunities. Here is an opportunity for government, universities and business to engage in tripartite problem solving. If we get that framework right it can be applied to a myriad of national challenges.” (AFR oped – March 2023) https://www.afr.com/policy/foreign-affairs/is-australia-in-the-dark-about-its-most-powerful-neighbours-20230308-p5cqak

And therein lies the challenge – the new beginnings if you like – for business and industry.

And a call to action.

We are all aware of the workforce challenges facing our nation, and some countries around the world.

Our Australian Government wants to entice talent here from overseas to work and live.

The fact is, the talent is already here, studying at our world class Go8 universities and living in our communities – right now.

The Treasurer has said he wants more international students to stay…

The vast majority of our international students however don’t – they get their well-rounded, world class education and return home, highly skilled and career ready.

So how to change that – how do we encourage some of our best and brightest international students to call Australia home – at least for a while.

Of course, we are happy for them to return home, equipped with knowledge and understanding of Australia and our way of life.

Such people-to-people links are vital to doing international business, to trade and to diplomacy, but we also want them to stay, and – given the right opportunities, I believe many of them would.

At the end of the day, our universities want our graduates to have meaningful employment, because we produce quality graduates who deserve quality jobs.

And many of them can have that here in Australia.

So, it’s time to rethink what constitutes the ideal quality graduate.

Traditionally that may have involved completing a higher degree, being an Australian citizen.

Changing the way business and industry thinks is just the beginning – we need changes to migration settings and to community attitudes.

We must switch the mindset.

No longer can we think of international students only as a short-term quick fix to fill a skills shortage – we must be more open minded and ask them to be here longer – as long as they wish.

Because not only can they contribute meaningfully to the Australian community and become part of it – they will undoubtedly contribute to a deeper understanding of China.

I realise what I have proposed has in itself challenges. But think of it as a new beginning instead.

Now is not the time for a too-hard basket, nor for a China knowledge deficit.

China is our largest trading partner and we must find ways to know China better.

What better way than to build our people-to-people links, to educate and prepare career-ready graduates who can then stay on here in meaningful employment, contributing to our economy and our community.

It might all begin with gaining a quality education but it really shouldn’t end there.

That is totally short sighted.

We are bigger than that. We must trust new beginnings.