Our Education Export Industry Needs Attention

The Australian Financial Review

By Michael Andrew
Chairman, BCA Education Skills and Innovation Task Force

A great deal has been said about our mining industry and the vital export revenue that it generates. In particular, the debate over the government’s mining tax proposal has raised the issue of the strong performance of the mining sector compared with other parts of the economy.

In contrast, the performance of Australia’s international education sector has not received the attention it deserves. The education of foreign students here has been a growing source of export income, so much so that education services are now our fourth-largest export, and in 2009 earned the nation $18 billion.

Although the education of international students by Australian universities, colleges and training institutions has been a success story, it is now facing a number of challenges. Other countries are competing more strongly for students. At the same time, Australia has made changes to the requirements for student visas and skilled migration which have led to declines in international student numbers.

We should be giving a higher priority to making sure that tertiary education and research providers can continue to build a sector that has so much potential to contribute to our economic and wider interests.

As a first step, there should be an urgent examination of our student visa and skilled migration requirements. Such an undertaking should focus on whether current visa rules are now too onerous, and whether the time it takes to process an application is a deterrent. We should look at creating a new student visa category for those seeking to enrol in substantial and extended education or research courses. We need to make sure our arrangements are not out of step with those in other countries such as the US and Canada.

Higher education should not equal a direct shortcut to a visa. And yes, some parts of the vocational and tertiary education sector did need to be cleaned up to protect students being exploited. But we should be taking a long-term economic perspective that takes full account of the benefits of this industry. These include:

1. An ability for Australian companies operating in Asia to have graduates educated to Australian standards working in their offices in Beijing, Hanoi, Jakarta and Shanghai, which makes doing business easier through a shared understanding of Australia. These graduates also have an ongoing connection to Australia.

2. Tourism and wider economic benefits that flow from parents, friends and family who learn about Australia from students studying here and discover that it is a place where they can visit, invest or start a business.

3. For many industries facing skill shortages, foreign students provide a rich talent pool, particularly in skills such as engineering.

4. Australian students learn critical cross-cultural skills, improved foreign language capabilities and cultural understanding from learning with foreign students, all critical attributes in a globalised business world.

5. Relationships and business connections are made through the friendships forged in classrooms and tutorials.

6. Foreign students choosing Australia improves our brand internationally. When a person chooses a course in Australia, it reinforces the message that Australia is a centre for learning, research and innovation.

Building our education export industry will help achieve our economic aspirations, while also deepening our relationships.

Like any major industry capable of delivering such benefits, we should be getting right behind it and making sure that regulatory and marketing arrangements enable our tertiary education providers to develop their key markets.

Australia has a strong platform from which to become a world-renowned exporter of education. Now is the time for a long-term economic plan that embraces and supports the future of an important new industry before too much time and too many potential students are lost.