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Speech: Recover, Refresh Connect

June 10, 2022

ACBC Australia-China Education Symposium, Dockside

Vicki Thomson, Chief Executive, Group of Eight

10 June 2022

Thank you for inviting me to speak here today.

It was an invitation much appreciated.

I say that with feeling, because, as Chief Executive of the Group of Eight Universities, I consider keeping our relationship with China strong in education and research as being critical; socially and culturally, just as much as economically.

On a personal level, since COVID closed the borders of our respective countries at different times since early in 2020, I have craved being able to yet again visit the Go8’s partner universities in China…….

…… and also being able to meet face-to-face with the many Chinese officials I had come to know, admire and develop close friendships with  during my 40+ visits there since 1997.

For those reasons, the theme of this conference “Recover, Refresh, Reconnect” absolutely resonated.

It is a positive theme.

It is a theme that should be embraced.

Before I do address it, it is important for me to say the Go8 – as political rhetoric and concern about China at times reached fever pitch here – continued with its ethos, as much as possible, of leaving politics to the politicians……

…… and meanwhile we burrowed away below all that, to a different level; a working level; focussing on the people to people engagement which keeps education and research relationships and partnerships alive and thriving, despite the politics bubbling away on the surface.

With seven Go8 members ranked in the world’s top 100 universities, we are global entities, so we continued to engage with our international colleagues and friends, working on solutions to the global challenges around us

That is what high-quality research-intensive universities have always done throughout centuries of wars and cold wars and international disagreements and policy fracas, and human rights and rule of law debates.

We continue. We work through. We find ways not to disadvantage the next generations of leaders and the much needed research that is working away in the background.

If we did not, then the world’s population would suffer greatly from lack of research impacts, in areas from life-saving medical advances to combatting climate change, and lack of quality higher education to improve  their life opportunities.

To us that result would be unacceptable. It goes against everything we stand for.

Everyone benefits from universities. As I often say – and genuinely believe – you do not have to attend one to reap the rewards in your life.

The best research is global. A strong Go8 theme is that Research is without Borders and the same goes for our students.

Yes, the Go8 is absolutely on board with protecting Australia’s national security in the work undertaken by our universities.

However, the approach we have championed is building tall fences around small paddocks; a surgical, precise method, not a research or relationship wrecking ball.

So, to expand on your theme from a Go8 perspective, I am going to begin at the end with the word Reconnect and break that down into two parts.

One is exceptionally positive, the other not so much, and therefore it is one Australia must work hard to redress; if that is at all possible after the fact.

On the positive side, despite the challenges, we never lost our strong connection with our valued students and post grads from mainland China.  I am very pleased to be able to report, that our students have stayed with us throughout COVID.

This is something the Go8 is immensely proud of – that we are the Australian University grouping which has best been able to keep that positive connection going.

We not only retained our enrolments during the COVID period,  but we increased them by some seven per cent. This bucked the national trend. This suggests that Chinese students remained attracted to studying at our high-quality, research-intensive universities, despite the challenges posed by closed borders.

Currently, the majority of those students remain studying at home in China, online.

I am sure they have had their fill of online study because no matter how we try, nothing can replace the experience of on-campus learning.

Some did manage to return here in the window when our borders re-opened and before the Omicron wave again shut China’s – almost 40% of our Go8 students were onshore in early 2020.

Sadly, the majority remain offshore for the time being, and we very much thank China’s Ministry of Education for changing policy temporarily to allow extended International online learning to count toward a degree.  This was not the case pre COVID. 

Now we potentially have students into a third year online with us by necessity not choice.

We hope that before long we can change our online connection with those students into a face to face one in Australia and say a heartfelt ‘welcome back’.

I will venture off-message quickly here to say as I do in every speech about students from China …..

……… that they have been part of the Go8 family since 1923 when the first student arrived to study teaching in Australia at Sydney University.

I feel that it always important to make this point and reflect on our shared history.

While the quantum of students from China may have changed significantly, the Go8 has always welcomed them, and both countries have benefited greatly from that student connection over generations.

Now back to Reconnect and its negative. The negative of Reconnect which is a problem for Australia perhaps for years to come…..

…. is the number of International students lost to Australia, along with the future student cohort courted and won so well during COVID by our competitor nations; nations such as the UK and the US, which …

…..despite being our friends, are rubbing their hands in glee at Australia’s clumsy and most unfortunate  treatment of any International student here when COVID struck.

Our then Government told them to leave; to go home if they could not support themselves financially and medically during the many and long lockdowns, especially in the eastern States.

What a misguided message to send globally about how our nation viewed those supposedly valued university students. More recently the message the former Government sent to those students in an effort to Reconnect was equally clumsy.

As a precis; the message was basically “come back because we need you to work in our pubs, and clubs, restaurants and shops”.

Really is that the best they could do?

Now all of us did our fair share of working in pubs and clubs and retail etc as we studied, but it was a means to an end; not the end game.  That’s not to say the contribution of students to the workforce and broader community while undertaking these jobs isn’t appreciated and valuable – it is.

But somehow Australia, under its new Government must recalibrate urgently how it communicates these messages to international students.

They are not a stop gap measure to fill low wage vacancies. Nor are they just a source of institutional and national revenue. They are the world’s next generation of highly qualified professionals for which there is an urgent skills shortage here and overseas.

For example, Australia badly needs engineers, general practitioners, nurses, IT and cyber security experts, vets, pharmacists, psychologists, optometrists, and the list goes on.

The Go8 recently convened a series of industry Summits which exposed the extent of our skills shortage and brought this sharp message home.

In 2020 international students accounted for 61% of enrolments in information technology, 43% in engineering, and 30% in architecture and building.

International higher degree research students or students studying for a PhD or masters by research accounted for 56% in information technology, 61% in engineering, 44% in agriculture and 40% in natural and physical sciences.

And we know from figures supplied by the Federal Treasury in 2018 that only 16 per cent of international students tend to remain in Australia for any length of time. That means much of that precious knowledge and capability that we have spent literally years training is lost to Australia in the longer term.

We simply cannot afford to be disconnected from the global pool of talent that is increasingly critical to our –  and our competitors  –  success. Without these students and the graduates they become our nation will struggle to make economic headway and so continue to fall behind our competitor nations.

We must understand that if our national conception of sovereign capacity includes only strengthening educational pathways into the economy for domestic students, then we will be putting a handbrake on our ability to continue to punch above our weight economically.

We should be attempting to mend Australia’s Reconnect stocks by reviewing why this talent chooses to leave, and what incentives are needed – such as renewed Visa settings that allow  our quality graduates to stay here and work if that’s what they chose to do 

It is a genuine country agnostic issue, but as China is home to so many of our Go8 students – how they have been, and are impacted, is important to us.

And I will add  – because I always do –  although this audience knows the reality – fee paying students from China do not take away places from domestic students. In fact they support them financially and also enrich their educational experience.

Moving on to Refresh.

This word too has many meanings as it relates to China.

I should start by being frank – the Go8  would like to see the new Government turn the macho verbal dial down somewhat re China.

We are of course not privy to security briefings, so all I can say is that diplomacy in the old fashioned DFAT and PMC meaning of the word seems to have been in short supply, especially in the past five years.

And this is not just my opinion. Paul Symon, Director-General of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), in a public address on the 10 May, noted that “In a difficult world, diplomacy remains vital”.[1]

As a group of universities, it would be helpful if there was a diplomacy refresh from our new Government, and also a recognition, and therefore a policy refresh, to reflect the fact that the Go8 does not want our Chinese students treated as cash cows.

The hypocrisy has to end – in the past we have observed as Government embraced private fee paying students because their fees help fund Australian research, rather than funding it properly themselves….

As an aside, in one Government briefing, probably four years ago now, we were offered a number of vague coded warnings that China was after our university research.

One very esteemed university leader said it would hardly be stealing since China had already funded it through its student fees.

That always raises a bit of a smile, but is not an exaggeration, and it   would be wonderful to have our new Government refresh its views and admit the high value we receive, and I don’t mean just dollars, from our students from mainland China.

And refresh doesn’t mean – as was the policy of the former government – taking fewer students from China and diversifying more into other nations.

The Go8 educates 160,000 students from over 160   countries. We also account for 71 per cent of Australia’s enrolments from Chinese university students.

That said, we are also working hard to recruit more students from the ASEAN region – it’s important to build closer ties with our neighbours and provide the education needed to support prosperity in the region.

Monash University for example has just opened a campus in Indonesia.

So, refresh to the Go8 means saying welcome back on shore to as many of our Chinese students as possible, while of course saying a massive thank you to them for hanging in there with us.

To end with Recover.

I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest Australia, while seeking to become a more sovereign nation, and one more adept to managing the changing  geopolitical climate…….

…….should assist universities and the business sector by having the diplomatic sophistication to  better manage its relationship with China despite obvious and serious issues.

The Go8 is not suggesting we let commitment to the rule of law slide, nor that we do not call out humanitarian practices that concern us.

The US does both but does manage to continue to trade and research strongly with China.

Between 2017 and 2021, the US produced 305,552 co-publications with China and  exports to China set a record in 2021.[2]

That is a good example of how International relationships have many levels and as a nation, despite the fact China has changed as it has modernised, the Go8 asks only that both nations find ways to support us to continue to provide a quality education to students from China…

….. and that we recover the relationship enough that we are not forced to throw the research baby out with the bathwater.

There is so much good that comes from students from China experiencing our way of life.  It fosters mutual understanding and respect.

And it delivers so much more than that – the collaborations borne out of our international partnerships leads to life changing and lifesaving research which impacts people around the globe.

I will leave recover and this audience with the thought that the world would not be on its way to removing the scourge of cervical cancer and a number of associated cancers from our young women and men if it had not been for an esteemed Chinese researcher Jian Zhou  joining forces with the University of Queensland’s Professor Ian Frazer.

We also have the more recent example of Professor Eddie Holmes from the University of Sydney and 2021 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science winner collaborating with Chinese colleague Professor Yong-Zhen to publish the genome sequence of the SARS-Cov-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

The Go8 chases and welcomes the best minds and I cannot think of a better way to Recover from the past few years than that continuing to do what we do best.

Thank you

[1] https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/foreign-espionage-australian-perspective#msdynttrid=F2ILNrYh7zkXydaxV8UAR13ASnGwNmvJu0cnaq3iLt0

[2] https://www.aei.org/foreign-and-defense-policy/us-and-china-2021-trade-numbers/