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Speech: ACBC Australia-China Education Symposium, Doltone House Hyde Park

June 9, 2021

9 June 2021

Vicki Thomson, Chief Executive, Group of Eight

Thankyou for the invitation to speak to you today.

You may not expect a CE of a university organisation to put it so personally, when I say caring for, and worrying about our students from China, and continuing to keep an open dialogue with our partner universities in China, is a subject dear to my heart.

But it is.

As I was preparing this speech, I reflected on the fact that last year was the first year in almost 22 that I did not have the pleasure of spending time in China, and I miss those visits, both personally and professionally.

 I very much look forward to returning as soon as it is possible to do so. Because, regardless of the geopolitical issues swirling around us, and over which the Go8 has absolutely no influence or control ……

…… it cannot be forgotten that over many years, both the friendships and professional relationships between the higher education and research sectors of our two nations have grown to be deep; and they have been real.

The Go8 will do whatever we can to make sure those relationships are long lasting and I believe they will be.

The Australia-China partnership goes back a long way – this is true not only in the education sector, but certainly the education and research sector has been integral to forging a stronger relationship.

In fact, the first Chinese student to study in Australia did so nearly 100 years ago, when N.Y Shah came to The University of Sydney in 1923 to study teaching.

Since then, many Chinese families have chosen Australia and specifically the Go8 to deliver their child’s higher education or research experience.

Just under 20 years ago, 17,400 Chinese students were studying in an Australian university – the Go8 educated around a third.

By 2019 -pre covid – this had risen to just under 165,000 – with around 63% at a Go8 university.

And even last year, with all of its challenges and difficulties, there were still over 160,000 Chinese students and researchers enrolled across Australian universities – even though not all of them were able to make it onshore.

And at Go8 universities the numbers are even better, with 107,100 Chinese students, compared to 103,040 the year before – an increase of 3.9%.

And many of these students are studying at higher levels.

In 2020, 60% of the enrolments at a Go8 university from Chinese students were in a postgraduate or higher degree research course.

This suggest that the relationship is strong enough to endure the test of time, regardless of external circumstances over which we have little control.

It also suggests that Chinese students are quite distinct from a number of other key cohorts, all of whom were also impacted by the pandemic.

The second largest source country for higher education students in Australia – behind China – is India – and enrolments from Indian students shows a different story.

Over the five years from 2015 to 2019, higher education enrolments from Indian students rose from around 35,132 to 90,228 – that’s an increase of 157%.

Similarly, enrolments across the Go8 also increased, from 2,866 in 2015 to 10,304 in 2019.

But this has not been sustained throughout the pandemic.

Last year, enrolments fell by 12%, and we have seen substantial drops in visa applications.

This indicates that Australia may be slipping down the list of priority destination countries for these students.

Similar losses have been seen amongst cohorts from Malaysia (-14%), Pakistan (-10%) and Sri Lanka (-7%).

Indeed, we are hearing reports that students are abandoning plans to study in Australia in favour of alternative locations, such as the UK or Canada.

In a May 2021 survey conducted by the Council of International Students Australia, almost 40% indicated they have considered changing to a different country.

This was largely due to ongoing border restrictions, and the lack of concrete plans for reopening.

And yet…. despite these challenges, many Chinese students appear to remain committed to their studies in Australia – at least for the moment.

The question is for how much longer.

Times have changed.

The Australia-China relationship is fractured – that is simply a very obvious fact – but nothing is irreparable as history has repeatedly shown. But we must both work at it.

We must acknowledge and address an emerging and worrying situation.

Despite our PM saying we are ‘the most successful multicultural nation anywhere on earth” during his visit to New Zealand last week, there have been increasing reports of racism being experienced in the community.

It would be extremely disturbing for our overseas student cohort to be made to feel unwelcome in the future, and we must work hard as a nation to negate any ugly bigoted behaviour becoming the norm.

Our present or future students cannot be held accountable or poorly treated because a virus originated in Wuhan, or because a vexed geopolitical situation they have nothing to do with, is constant headline news or click bait.

Australia is and always has been a welcoming nation – we pride ourselves on that – and I sincerely hope we never become otherwise.

So – how do you improve a relationship if it’s not going well?

You don’t do it by switching off.

You have to invest time. You get to know one another – understand each other’s point of view – as we have done since welcoming our first student from China in 1923 and continued to do so under the Colombo Plan and the New Colombo Plan. 

This does not mean backing down from our core principles and values – but it does mean keeping our perspective. And that is exactly what international students who come to Australia provide – understanding and perspective.

They live here, study here and they work here.   And when they return home – and more than 80 % do – they take with them a far better understanding of what Australia really is.   

And I should make the point that this is far from the only reason we seek to attract international students.

International students become graduates who contribute to Australia’s much needed skills base and help to keep our economy ticking over.

The Tech sector is telling us that over the next five years, they will need some 160,000 people into the workforce. We currently graduate 1,900 a year across the Go8. Not difficult to see the gap here, and we don’t have the population to grow our own!

Ironically, you can’t build Australian capability without a strong international education market, especially at the research end.

Over recent decades, China has recognised the importance of research in an increasingly technologically driven age and has been investing accordingly.

By January 2020, Nature magazine was reporting that the gap in R&D funding between the United States and China was closing fast, and by August Science was reporting that China was the world’s second biggest spender in absolute terms, investing around US$468 billion.

This rise is reflected in quality metrics, too. In 2012, not one Chinese university was ranked within the top 100 in the world in the prestigious Academic Ranking of World Universities.

By 2020 this had risen to six.  The Go8 by the way, has seven in the top 100.

As I have said many times, high quality research is an international endeavour.  We have just had a powerful example of that in the COVID-19 pandemic, where international cooperation has helped drive vaccine developments in record time. 

So given this context, it is hardly surprising that China is one of Australia’s major research collaboration partners.

Between 2015 and 2019, China was Australia’s fourth largest research collaborator behind the EU, the USA and the UK. 

Compare this to other Five Eyes partners. Over the same period, China was the United States’ second largest collaborator (behind only the EU as a bloc), and the fourth largest collaborator for the UK. And for China, their top collaborator in research was the USA, followed by the EU, then the UK, then Australia.

And why is this? Because despite increasing pressures and challenges, China remains a key global R&D partner for many major research nations. 

 Maintaining these collaborations is becoming more challenging for obvious and well known reasons.

Like any relationship, personal or professional, the Australia-China relationship needs to be nurtured.  

We can’t assume that students and researchers will continue to come here if it becomes too difficult or the borders remain closed long term. Chinese students continue to study with us at the moment, but the Chinese Government could decide to change that at any moment.  

The Go8 has, and has had, many research students, PhD students, from China working as part of our university research teams; joined by researchers from many other countries because research genuinely has no borders.

We all know the best research is global. And we do recognise that times have changed, and new risks have emerged. This means it is appropriate for certain measures to be taken to mitigate against those risks, as is the case with any type of emerging or increasing risk.

But what we mustn’t do is throw the baby out with the bathwater.

We must find the balance between protecting that which must be protected and   ensuring we have an open global research partnership with our largest trading partner.

It’s a delicate balance but it is achievable – I truly believe we can strike that balance.  The value of staying close to our partner universities in China through this challenging period is immeasurable.

And it is through forums such as these that we can make some contribution to the healing process.

 I’ll close now by reflecting on history again for a moment.

It was Nelson Mandela who said : Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

Even over the past century we have seen the relationship between Australia and China deteriorate at times, either directly or as a result of relationships with other nations. But each time we recover and we find common ground – this time I believe one of our best and mutually beneficial options is it seek that common ground through our strong education and research links.