Speaking date: Friday, 10 June 2022
Delivered by: Universities Australia Chief Executive, Catriona Jackson
Theme: Australian universities’ engagement with China in a post-pandemic world
Thank you for the invitation to speak today at this important event, with such a valuable purpose.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the Traditional Owners of the land and waters we’re meeting on here today, and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.
I want to talk about two things today – Australia’s commitment to international education over 60 years and the benefits of that, and our deep connections to the Chinese people through education and research.
Every year 400,000 students arrive in Australia to study, from 144 nations around the globe. That number is down a bit at the moment – due to the long tail effects of COVID – but let’s leave that for the moment.
You will have heard that number many times before – but stop and think about it for a moment. Almost a third of university students each year, are drawn from 144 nations around us. What a phenomenal thing that is. What a phenomenal opportunity it has been and continues to be.
400,000 students, from around the region and the world, placing their faith in us, building their future inside our universities, sitting in class with our kids, as they learn and grow and determine the course of the rest of their lives.
60 years ago, Australia’s universities made a deliberate and clear choice – to open our doors to our region and to the world. To not only educate our citizens, but those of the region in which we live. To see education as a responsibility that transcends national boundaries, and that brings enormous mutual benefits to us all.
Opening our world-class system to the world was the right thing to do then, it is the right thing to do now.
We have learned as much from the students who have come, from Beijing or Bangkok, Helsinki or Hong Kong, here as they have from us.
This deep cultural, economic and social exchange has had an enormous impact – be it on our place in our region, growing mutual understanding and connection across nations, to the construction of Australia as one of the great multicultural nations.
These are themes strongly reinforced by our Prime Minister and Foreign Minister as they have talked of partnership and mutual interests, while they have travelled the region in their first weeks in office. That sense of optimism and joint endeavour, in the face of real global challenges, has been a strong message and one we welcome.
Australian universities are deeply connected to Chinese universities through research, education and academic staff exchange.
In 2020, Australia had more than 1,000 formal research relationships with China, which was, and in 2022 likely still is, more than with academics from any other nation.
We had over 500 transnational education agreements with China – again, that’s more than with any other country.
And according to the 2016 Census, close to five per cent of the academics working in Australia were born in China.
We all know the story of Ian Frazer and Jian Zhou, who together developed the cervical cancer vaccine which has saved billions of women’s lives. A true international collaboration success story. A Chinese man and a Scot, working together, in Australia. Brilliance knows no boundaries.
And of course, there are the students who come every year. International education is Australia’s largest services export, and China has always been our largest trading partner in this – even taking COVID-19 into account.
Let’s look at the numbers.
Across the board international student numbers are sitting at about 2017 levels – around 25 per cent down compared with pre-covid. In very board terms this is true for Chinese students and others alike. So right now, there are more than 110,000 Chinese students enrolled in our universities.
Colleagues in sessions following will no doubt pull apart trends and differences, and all the factors that influence that number. I’ll leave them to that.
In 2015 Asia’s middle class was 1.3 billion strong. By 2030 it is predicted to be almost three times that size at 3.4 billion people. That means two thirds of the global middle class will be on our doorstep. In China over 70 per cent of the population will be middle class. With that seismic socio-economic shift comes demand for skills and education.
Not all of that will translate into students on Australian soil – of course it won’t. and don’t forget the Australian university system has been educating the region – in a range of diverse ways – for a very long time. Diversification is not new.
Remember Australia has 28 campuses – and over 700 programs of study – being taught in the region – from China to Singapore, the UAE to India.
What the demographic trends to tell us is that we need more education – not less – and that nations like Australia and China have a big role to play in that.
Some of the most searing stories – in the depths of 2020 and 2021 – were of students studying in their bedrooms and garages – in Beijing or Bathurst. All of them doing their best, but many of them afraid and confused, not knowing what their futures held. Everyone reached out.
Universities did extraordinary work in connecting directly with students, finding them to begin with, and remember, at the very start of COVID-19 many students had gone home for holidays. An incredible find and seek mission happened to identify where students were and extraordinary efforts at outreach to connect with so many of those students.
I pay tribute especially to Chinese students who stuck online, studied at home or wherever they were studying in real circumstances of stress. We heard so many stories that Australian students and students from many countries connecting through that trauma, connecting through that really very difficult period forging even closer relationships than they might even have had in the classroom.
One thing that was true for all of the students – wherever they came from – was their desperate desire to get back into class – back to Australia – alongside their friends. All of them wanted to reconnect – as scholars and mates. It has been a joy to witness those returns and reconnections – we look forward to more.