About 68,000 Indian students studied in Australia last year, at both the skills training level and the higher education level. Australia is the second most popular destination for Indian students after the United States. As Australia’s prime minister Malcom Turnbull is in India, there is also a sizeable delegation led by the country’s education minister Simon Birmingham and about 120 other representatives from the education sector. Below are edited excerpts of a conversation between Mr. Birmingham and Sky News political editor David Speers in New Delhi on Monday, April 10, 2017.
David Speers:Narendra Modi’s government here wants to skill up some 400 million people over the next five years, by 2022. What role can Australia play in that?
Simon Birmingham: The numbers and the scale are quite mind-boggling from an Australian perspective, and as Malcolm Turnbull’s written in newspapers today, there are more 10-year-olds in India than there are people in Australia. So, huge, huge numbers, but a big opportunity to build on a successful partnership with India. We are already the second most popular destination for Indian students who study abroad, straight after the United States. So, some 68,000 or so students enrolled in Australia last year. That’s about 15 per cent of all Indians who go overseas. So, big success already but many opportunities to build on that.
I’ve seen some suggestions that Donald Trump’s positions on immigration and Muslims and so on have made a lot of Indians feel uncomfortable about going there. Are Indians more attracted to Australia because of Donald Trump?
Well, it’s probably a little early to say whether that’s the case, but we’ve really rebuilt in terms of the reputation and standing of Australia from some difficult times a few years ago, and those times do highlight the fact that small incidents or issues, public perceptions, as well as visa rules, which the Labor Government tightened down on quite abruptly at the time – and there’s some of that happening in the UK at present as well in relation to international students – can have a negative impact in a market. Now, we’ve recovered since then and that’s great news.
In fact, we’ve picked up beyond where we were before those incidents around the Indian students being assaulted in Australia.
Well and truly, and so it’s a sector now worth more than $2 billion to the Australian economy in terms of the contribution that it makes and that’s jobs right across Australia in a whole range of different fields, hospitality, accommodation…
There have still been problems, though, with fraud in relation to some students… maybe not having the qualifications they should to study in Australia, or not having the money to pay for the course that they should in Australia, using the student visa system as a backdoor way to get into the country?
We’ve been very cautious in terms of the way we’ve opened up the visa system and improved it from the days when Labor clamped down. Because of course, border security and ensuring we have confidence in our immigration system is something that our government takes incredibly seriously. So, only providers who have high repute and great processes in place are able to then provide education and training to people who get a visa, to ensure that we have really strong safeguards. But we’re seeing really good satisfaction levels – the latest data shows that more than 90% of Indian students studying in Australia are extremely satisfied with their experience, including all of the lifestyle aspects there.
I’m sure they are. It’s a great place to be.
Well, it’s the message that we’re a safe, welcoming country, that of course also has very high quality education and training opportunities.
The trade with India [is] $2 billion at the moment… you’ve got a massive delegation here with 120+ representatives from Australia, including a bunch of vice-chancellors. What part of the market do you want to grow? Is it the PhDs at the very top? Is it the skills training outside of universities and more in the colleges and TAFEs? What are you after?
We’re seeing opportunities across the board, commensurate with the scale of India and therefore many different opportunities. So, we have the Group of Eight universities here today, and they’re going to be announcing new partnership arrangements for PhD scholarships and arrangements, so really high-level engagement. And that, of course, backs in and underpins our extensive research arrangements with India. There are more than 400 different research partnerships between Australian universities and Indian entities which drives investment and activity across agricultural productivity and food security, energy security, clean energy development, areas that of course are of mutual benefit to both our countries. And so, we really see this as a partnership, it’s not just about where Australia can secure economic activity, but about how we can strengthen those ties right across the board.
Importantly, the skills area that India, as a country moving into a more developed phase, is seeing a huge need for skills. You referenced Prime Minister Modi’s 400 million target for upskilling Indians – that’s especially important in the vocational education and training sector, and we’ve developed some products that will be trialled and rolled out first in India by Australian training providers to help …
Training them over here?
That’s right, training people here. So, it isn’t just about a flow of people to Australia, it’s also about Australian institutions doing more, seizing opportunities here, which will then strengthen other trade, business, and economic relationships.
Last year, you commissioned an expert panel to help you form the policy on higher education reform, have they come back to you with their suggestions?
Yeah, so we’re in the process pre-budget of finalising a whole range of different policy settings in the higher education space.
So, that will be in the budget, the higher education reform?
That’s the timeline that I’ve said publicly we’re working to before, and that’s still the timeline that we are working towards.
And do they say deregulation’s a good idea?
Well, no, we ruled out full fee deregulation before the last election …
But partial, some sort of …
… and we’ve been through a process of testing different ideas with the sector, and that was really the intent of the expert panel, to allow me to test a bunch of different propositions as to how we ensure that our record levels of investment in universities and higher education and record levels of participation are actually responsive to the economy, are efficient as possible, deal with the budget challenge and the reality that we’ve seen far faster growth in investment and spending in higher education than we have seen economic growth over recent years.
And you can’t keep that up, you need to cut back the Commonwealth investment?
Well, higher education will have to live within the budget settings that we’ve outlined before and we really are working …
Which means cutting back the amount the Federal Government spends per student?
We’ve looked, again, testing different ways as to how we can best achieve that and so the budget policy positions we’re taking are about looking at the fairest way to do that that ensures student access is still guaranteed for the future with no up-front fees and no penalties or concerns in that regard, universities have a strong and sustainable base of funding for the future, and our student loan scheme is sustainable.
And some flexibility for universities to charge different fee rates?
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Well, David, they’re some of the ideas that have been tested and in the budget we’ll see which of those actually stands the rigour of the process we put them through – very extensive consultations, more than 1,000 submissions, lots of different discussions to test ideas to see how the sector can be most responsive to our future economic needs.