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Speech: The Future of Australia-China Higher Education Ties

November 23, 2021

Foundation for Australian Studies in China (FASIC)
Tuesday 23 November 2021
Vicki Thomson, Chief Executive, Group of Eight

Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today.

It is an important invite for me, and I mean that most sincerely.

It was October 2019 that I was last in China.

That was my 41st  time in China in the past 23 years, for the education sector, when I was on the Australia China Council Board and whilst working as Chief of Staff to the South Australian premier in the  late nineties.

I obviously had no idea that it would be the last visit for some time.

It was, as usual, a warm series of meetings with universities, the Ministry of Education and the China Scholarship Council, whose high-quality sponsored students we love to receive.

On that last visit pre COVID, I met with people who are dedicated to the highest education principles, people whom I had met many times and who had always made me feel genuinely welcome.

While I have now spent two years without being able to return to China, and I miss those visits, these are organisations which I do, on behalf of the Go8, look forward to meeting with as soon as practical. And importantly, I want to be able to welcome them to Australia as soon as we reach a level of stability and trust in travel post COVID.

So – what is it that I am seeking to convey with those introductory remarks?

Four important points.

One, that my team and myself – and I know all Go8 member Universities – have long-term genuine relationships and friendships with people in China that they have maintained and wish to hang on to.

Two, that we remain dedicated to enrolling the very best students from Australia and overseas in line with the Go8’s principle of commitment to excellence,

… and then graduating them successfully as the next generations of leaders both on-shore and off-shore.

Three, that as much as possible, we leave politics to politicians, and just get on with our work which is delivering the highest levels of education and research.

And four that we are open for business and hope our PhD students in China understand that message. There must be PhD student transfers back and forth between our two nations. There is so much good that comes of that.

Although, I cannot diminish the truth that the current geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific and specifically Australia’s current relationship with China, doesn’t make this as easy as it once was.

But, like the many large and small Australian companies who continue to maintain a relationship with China and its people, so too does the Go8.

The Go8 has appreciated the trust China has continued to show in the quality of our higher education system despite the swirling geopolitics.

Just this week we have seen the release of research from the Lowy Institute which shows that of the four countries considered for Chinese sentiment towards education, Australia came out as having the strongest affect measures of engagement – indicating future demand – followed by Canada, the US and the UK.

As well, in 2021, across the board, the Go8 has increased its share of the Chinese market attracting 70% of total Chinese enrolments and 74% of commencing students.

That surely indicates faith from families in China that we will care for and educate their children to the highest possible level and with their government’s approval.

But it’s more than that – reputation is critical but so too is the fostering of people-to-people relationships – never more so than during times of tension – and it’s the work of organisations such as FASIC that has helped build mutual understanding and respect. This has also seen our record of excellent research collaboration endure throughout the most difficult of times.

Challenges bring with them opportunities – and the importance of international collaboration has been highlighted like never before.

High quality research is an international endeavour – advancements are driven by the best and brightest in the world coming together to pool their knowledge and expertise.

We’ve just had a powerful example of that in the COVID-19 pandemic, where international cooperation has helped drive vaccine developments in record time.

Of course, it was Sydney Uni’s Professor Eddie Holmes – the recipient of the PM’s Prize for Science this year – who, while working with Dr Yong-Zhen Zhang of Fudan University in Shanghai, was the first person to publicly share the entire genome sequence of covid-19, allowing for the rapid development of COVID-19 tests and vaccinations.

Not that long ago it was a collaboration – again between an Australian and Chinese-born researcher –  that resulted in the creation of Gardasil, a vaccine that has led to an estimated 90% decrease in the prevalence of the virus that causes cervical cancer.

All of that said –   you are an intelligent and well-read audience so you would have noted the Australian Government’s increased focus on being a more sovereign nation, on national security, cyber security, critical infrastructure security etc. Basically, all of this bundles into the area titled Foreign Interference.

As the nation’s leading research-intensive universities with seven of our members ranked in the world’s top 100 universities, we have been working with Government to enhance the security within our universities.

National security is a collective responsibility – and that includes universities – but it has never, ever, been asked of us that we cease to have a welcome mat out for students or researchers from China.

Maintaining these collaborations has of course become more challenging with the myriad of new regulations and legislation.

But, you can be sure the Go8 will always continue to advocate for a balance between ensuring we protect our national research effort but we don’t stymie it.

It is our responsibility to work with Government to ensure Australia’s national security is never compromised.

It is also our responsibility to do everything we can to continue enabling the high-quality research that will increasingly underpin Australia’s ongoing prosperity in a more technologically driven world.

The Go8’s advocacy efforts in these areas have therefore, and thankfully, created an awareness that we must tread carefully.

If we don’t there will be long term impacts on Australia’s high-performing research sector, with significant negative flow-on impacts to the broader community and economy. 

I am assured by Government agencies that this is far from the intention. The intention is not to stop the sector from engaging in important international collaborations – many of which are life-changing and lifesaving.

I am an optimist and I do believe collaboration is and will remain synonymous with any discussion about China and Australia’s future education ties.

We must never forget that none of us – as a country – has a monopoly on intelligence and the application of that intelligence for the common good. We need partners.

So, you would be pleased to hear that despite geopolitics and COVID, co-publications between our two nations have not decreased – a vital stat that indicates research continues; as it should, and does, with all of our other major research nations such as the US, UK and the EU.

Nor have other Five Eyes nations ceased research engagement with China. Between 2015 and 2019, China produced more co-publications with the US and the UK than it did with Australia.

And so, as COVID restrictions ease, and international borders begin to reopen, we are more than ready to say welcome back to the 30,000 students in China who have stayed the difficult COVID course with us.

They have studied online at home, just as many of our domestic students, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales have had to do.

And I do here need to say how much we appreciate the Chinese Government accommodating this mode of learning for those dedicated students who were confined to home through no fault of theirs or ours.

Finally having   worked through our achievements and challenges I’d like to turn to the issue of sustained collaboration.

China’s dominance of the world’s international education market is unlikely to change in the short-term.

The Go8 operates in a competitive global international education sector, providing education and research in response to student demand and the policies of successive Australian governments.

When COVID-19 hit, Go8 unis were targeted, I think unfairly, for our reliance on Chinese students – a factor that was being applauded not so long ago.

I understand the release of the Australian Government’s international education strategy is imminent and the issue of diversification is expected to feature.

This important strategy will help frame our future direction – international education delivers significant economic and social benefits to Australia. Income from international students underpins our research efforts and helps meet funding shortfalls for teaching domestic students.

 The return of international students is also eagerly anticipated by employers – workforce shortage is a real issue in Australia.

The Go8 has identified five things the Government can do to foster sustained collaboration:

1. We need a clear vision – a “Team Australia’ approach to international education. 

We need to build on the sector’s strengths to leverage emerging opportunities and cement our place in the world and address the competition or challenge I referred to earlier from competitor counties such as the US, UK and Canada.

2. We must support the return of international students for 2022. 

There’s been significant progress. Government at all levels can work with providers to make international students feel welcome, valued and safe while studying in Australia. Our post-study work visa system needs to match or better those offered by our key competitor countries.

3. Support providers to diversify their students and fields of study.

Diversifying into new markets and new education programs will take time but we see enhanced roles for Austrade, Study Australia and Australian trade missions working with providers to market Australian education, foster international alumni networks and connections with employers during study and after graduation.

4. Invest in university research.

One of the main drivers for Australian universities’ growth of international students is the large and growing gap between government funding for research projects and full cost of delivering this research – we need balance in the equation.

5. Foster Australia-China understanding through education, and research in areas of mutual interest.

China’s size and rise means it will remain a dominant trading partner for Australia. We need to find ways to work with China, while protecting our national interests and delivering mutual benefits.

Maintaining these collaborations has of course become more challenging – but, you can be sure the Go8 will always advocate to continue that which benefits society.

Chinese/Australia education and research collaborations are one such example.