AustCham Hong Kong and Macau Chairman’s column: Education – Australia deserves better

Reducing funding to Australian universities will have ramifications for Australia’s long-term education sector, both domestically and internationally, writes AustCham Hong Kong and Macau Chairman, Richard Petty.

It was recently announced that the Australian Government plans to fund the school reforms that have been proposed by David Gonski by cutting funding to universities. This idea has been savaged by many on the grounds that taking money from tertiary education to fund education at lower levels is short-sighted. Australia needs quality education at all levels if the nation is to prosper into the future and if it is to remain competitive.
Australia’s education sector is built on the quality of its institutions. Several universities feature prominently in global rankings. The World University Rankings 2011-2012 by The Times ranked four Australian universities in its top 100. The fact that Australia runs a sizeable trade surplus in educational services also shows the present strength of the university system. Tertiary education accounts for around 60 percent of education service exports from Australia. In 2010-11, Australia’s exports of higher education services were A$9,402 million, compared to A$2,528 million in 2000-01 (Australian Bureau of Statistics). The Chinese Mainland accounted for 27.2 percent of overseas students in Australia’s higher education sector in 2010, followed by Malaysia (10 percent), and Singapore (9.9 percent).
As an advanced economy with a high standard of living and high aspirations, Australia has to continue to move ahead in terms of education and workforce development or it will fall behind. The World Economic Forum ranked Australia 11th (out of 142 economies) in Higher Education and Training in 2011. Overall, Australia performs relatively well, but there is no room for complacency.
The standard of education is becoming better in Asia and Asia is (not so slowly) moving ahead of Australia. Anecdotes abound of secondary school students from Asia who go to Australia and find that in educational terms they are streets ahead of the pack, especially in math and science. And there is much evidence that can be adduced to support the argument that such anecdotes have substance and are not simply a rallying call for self-interest groups and scaremongers.
In several of the countries in Asia that Australia should be benchmarking itself against, education is taken very seriously and significant investments, both financial and otherwise, are made in education. Universities in Asia are improving in quality, attracting more funding, and moving up the global rankings at a time when Australian universities are struggling under resource constraints and funding pressure.
Of great concern is the fact that international student numbers in Australia have been falling. This can be attributed to various factors, including the high Australian dollar, but one reason for the decline that seldom seems to get much attention is that increasingly it is the case that students from Asia can get a world-class education at home. For many, this does away with the need and the motivation to travel to Australia to study. The trend of declining international student enrolments from Asia is troubling, particularly at a time when Australia has aspirations to be a key player in the Asian Century and to integrate more closely with Asia.
The education revolution promised by the Australian Government in 2008, and for which A$10 billon was budgeted, has yet to materialise. A 2012 Grattan Institute report argues that reforms to education have the potential for enormous benefit but that the payoff in improved productivity and higher GDP will take decades to realise. Given the time lag between spend and demonstrable result, one might be forgiven for taking a cynical view in thinking that government doesn’t have the will to expend political capital on such reforms, regardless of their potential impact. This must change.
Presently, the talent that Australia produces is able to compete with the best in the world for the best jobs. Much of that talent finds its way to Asia. The managerial ranks in Asia are full of highly educated and sought after Australians, and they are also replete with domestic talent that has been educated in Australia and then returned to country of origin.
Important business, cultural, and political links are established in this way. If this is to continue, Australia will need to keep pace educationally and any sign of a slowdown in Australia’s educational exports must be immediately addressed.
There must be a vision for Australia that goes beyond capitalising on the present resources boom.
Australia is the lucky country. It must remain a smart country too.
The Gonski reforms for schools should be implemented without funding cuts being imposed on Australia’s universities. Other support must be given to schools and universities to evolve their learning materials, to embrace new learning technologies, and to fund more and even better trained educators, so that the education revolution that was promised happens. Closer links between educational institutions and business must be fostered, and through those links closer ties to Asia can be formed. It is everyone’s responsibility to make education a priority and to get it right. Looking to the long-term, Australia cannot afford to do otherwise.
Richard Petty 
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