Australian International Education Conference – Wednesday 11 October 2023





In three days, Australia votes.

In three days, we get a chance to do something that really should have happened 122 years ago.

We get a chance to recognise in our Constitution, the simple fact that Australia didn’t start when Captain Cook arrived.

That we have a history that goes back 60,000 years.

That we are the home of the oldest continuous culture in the world.

And we have a chance to put that history in our Constitution.

In this room, I know you look out to the world. That you work with people from all around the world.

Think about this.

The Australian Constitution is the only constitution of a first world nation with a colonial history that does not recognise its first people.

New Zealand has done it. So has Canada. So has the United States. 

On Saturday, we have a chance to do this too.

And a chance to do something to help improve the lives of people who don’t live as long as the rest of us.

Who suffer more chronic illness than the rest of us.

Who are less likely to go to school or finish school than the rest of us.

Think about the message that would send to the rest of the world.

I suspect you see that more keenly and more clearly than most.

Because that’s the world you look at every day. It’s your business to know it.

This is an export industry.

The biggest export we don’t dig out of the ground.

And we are very good at it.

In the last decade, we have helped educate more than 3 million students from around the world.

It makes us money.

Before the pandemic, it was worth about $40 billion dollars.

That’s money that contributes to our economy.

And it creates jobs in Australia. About 250,000.

I know this is an industry that has also been hit harder by the pandemic than most.

The borders were shut. Students were told to go home, so they did. Others were forced to stay and ask charities and friends for help.

The same thing didn’t happen everywhere around the world, and some students have picked other places to study.

In Canada, their international student numbers barely dipped. In the UK, international students numbers continued to rise during the pandemic and we expect will continue to do so.

But students are now back here too.

Today, there are roughly the same number of international students in Australia as there were in 2019.

A few less at university. A few more in vocational education. A few less from some countries and a few more from others. But they are back.

And with that comes dollars.

According to my Department, an industry worth $40 billion before the pandemic is now almost worth that much again.  

That’s good news.

And as I have said so many times, this is no ordinary industry. We are not just taking about jobs and dollars.

When a student comes here they don’t just get an education.  A bit of Australia rubs off on them.

They fall in love with the place.

And when they go home, they take that love and affection for us back home with them.

In the world we live in today, that is priceless.

And of course, some stay and build a life here. Build new businesses here. Use the skills they have gained here to help us.

Today I want to talk to you about the future. About what comes next. About reform.

This is a year for big ideas.

And I am not just talking about the Universities Accord.

There is equally big work happening right now in school education and early education.

If we really want an education system that gives every young person a fair crack, we need serious reform across the board.

And that work is happening right now.

Professor Deborah Brennan and the Productivity Commission are currently in the middle of the biggest review of our early education system in Australia’s history.

We will get their Interim Report before the end of the year.

Dr Lisa O’Brien is leading a review of our school education system and what should be in the next National Schools Reform Agreement. Education Ministers will consider her report in December.

And of course, there is the work of Professor Mary O’Kane and the Accord Panel and I will also receive their final report  at the end of the year.

Together they will be a blueprint for education in this country for the next decade and beyond.

A blueprint to build a better and a fairer education system.

Some of the early reforms are already obvious and already being implemented.

There is legislation in the Parliament right now to help double the number of Indigenous students at university within a decade and to abolish a rule introduced by the former government that has hit more than 13,000 students in the last year and forced many of them to quit.

We are doubling the number of University Study Hubs across the country, and expressions of interest for some of these opened about two weeks ago.

We’re also requiring higher education providers to have a Support for students policy, which details the support they will provide to their students to assist them to successfully complete their studies.

And as you might have seen in the media last week, we are looking at ways to address the serious issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment on our campuses, including potentially establishing a standalone, independent National Student Ombudsman.

We are also busy in international education.

When I got this job there was a massive backlog of students waiting for visas.

That has been fixed.

Students are back, but so are the shonks.

You know who they are.

Dodgy agents and providers looking to exploit students. Trying to exploit you. Looking to make a quick buck. A lot of bucks.

They are a threat to our international reputation. To our good name as a place where the best and brightest from around the world can come and get the best education in the world.

And they are a threat to your good name.

You have told me this.

And that’s why we are acting.

In July, we ended the unlimited working hours of international students. Limiting them to 24 hours a week.

That was the first step in reducing the lure of getting a student visa as a backdoor just to work here.

But that’s not the only thing we have to do.

In August, I closed the ‘concurrent certificate of enrolment’ loophole that has allowed agents and providers to shift international students who have been here for less than six months from one course to another. From genuine study to no study at all. Just a backdoor way to work here.

Something you asked us to do.

We have also increased the amount of savings that international students now will need in order to get a student visa. From this month, a student will need to show evidence of $24,505 in savings.

This will mean that students coming to Australia can better support themselves, and won’t face increased risk of exploitation because they urgently need a job.

But there is still more to do.

And last week, we took the next step in overhauling the visa system and the regulation of international education in Australia.

In January, Christine Nixon, the former Police Commissioner of Victoria, was appointed to conduct a rapid review into the exploitation of Australia’s visa system.

Last week, the Minister for Home Affairs, Clare O’Neil, released the review and our response to it.

It found that around 75 per cent of international students use an education agent as part of their entry to Australia.

There’s an important place for education agents in helping students navigate their move from one country to another to study.

But right now there is very little oversight. None from the sector regulators.

Right now it falls to providers to try and police agents in their individual dealings with them.

That’s a tough ask.

And it’s allowed corrupt practices to flourish.

Practices like education agents touting for students to travel to Australia under the pretence of studying but who are really looking to work. Students who never attend a lecture or set foot on campus.

Or education agents poaching newly arrived students to shift from their original course into a cheaper, more limited course at a different provider.

And all the while pocketing hefty and often secret commissions.

Students miss out when their plans for study are derailed.

And providers miss out on their investment in a student when they don’t complete their studies.

And, as Christine Nixon’s report reveals, these weakness in the system also leave open the door to even darker practices.

Grotesque abuses of temporary workers and international students by organised crime groups.

In response, last week we announced a bunch of measures to strengthen the integrity of our tertiary education sector.

As part of this, I will introduce legislation to amend the Education Services for Overseas Students Act to strengthen the existing fit and proper provider test.

This will prevent the cross-ownership of businesses between education providers and education agents.

We will also support providers to make better informed decisions in dealing with education agents. Providers will be given greater access to agent performance data such as student completion rates and visa rejection rates.

Changes will also prohibit agent commissions on student transfers between providers in Australia to stamp out the current “poaching” market where agents entice students away from one provider to join another for the agent’s own personal benefit.

I want to work with you to make sure we get this right. To make sure that we achieve the intent of this reform and don’t open new loopholes of ‘marketing payments’ or ‘commission equivalent payments’ to related entities or individuals. 

We are also looking at using the powers under section 97 of the ESOS Act to issue suspension certificates to high-risk education providers. A suspension certificate would prevent a provider from recruiting international students.

This is a big step and Minister O’Neil and her Department are currently consulting on regulations to set out how the exercise of that power could work.

In the VET sector, my colleague Brendan O’Connor, has tightened the Registered Training Standards and strengthened the Standard Fit and Proper Person requirements to support ASQA in finding and preventing unethical practices.

And last week he announced he would establish a new dedicated Integrity Unit within ASQA. This is a $37.8 million investment to fit that unit out with the technology and resources it needs.

And it will underwrite a compliance blitz on unlawful behaviour in the sector – targeting non genuine providers exploiting international students.

I know Minister O’Connor will speak with you on Friday.

This is not the end of reform. Minister O’Neil is also leading work on broader migration reform.

And of course, I will continue to seek the advice and work with the Council for International Education.

It is important that we get this right. This is about protecting the integrity of international education and protecting your good name, and our reputation worldwide.

International education is not just about students coming here.

It’s also about taking Australian education to the world.

We have a strong record of this already.

Next year, Deakin will mark 30 years in India.

RMIT has been in Vietnam for 20 years.

Singapore counts James Cook University, Curtin University, the University of Adelaide, the University of Newcastle and the University of Wollongong among its Australian universities offering Australian qualifications locally.

Malaysia counts Monash University, Curtin University, Swinburne, University of Wollongong and The University of Southern Queensland among its Australian universities.

Monash University is also now in Jakarta.

The University of Canberra is in Bhutan and Hong Kong.

And there is now a real opportunity to do more.

Next month I will be heading back to India for the second time this year. It’s to build on the special relationship Australia is forging with India in education.

In March we signed the Mechanism for the Mutual Recognition of Qualifications – India’s most comprehensive education agreement of its kind with another country.

Now in November I will have the privilege of formally opening two Australian university campuses in India – Deakin University and the University of Wollongong in GIFT City.

These are the first two universities in the world to be approved to set up a standalone campus in India.

It shows how good our universities are, and it shows how strong and deep the partnership is between our two countries. 

Next month, I will also be in Surabaya in Indonesia where Western Sydney University will open a campus next year.

India and Indonesia. Two economic super-powers in the making, both making a big push in education.

And they are asking for our help in educating their young people.

I am keen for us to be a part of that.

Because, as I said a moment ago, international education doesn’t just make us money.

It makes us friends.

When I was in New Delhi earlier this year, I met a young man named Abhishek Handa who had been plucked from the slums of West Delhi by the Asha Society and given a scholarship to study at the University of Sydney.

A life remade.

When he came home he brought with him all the technical knowledge he learnt in his management degree. And he used that to work for a major telco technology company back in India.

But he also brought something else back.

Friendships. Experiences. An understanding of who we are and what we’re about.

Now he’s part of that living bridge between Australia and India.

The same night in New Delhi I met five young indigenous women from Wadeye in the Northern Territory, a community of fewer than 2,000.

They were studying textiles at Centurion University in Bhubaneswar – a city of 1.3 million people, in a nation of 1.4 billion.

Imagine the experiences they will bring back with them.

They are part of that bridge too.

A bridge that changes lives and brings the world a little closer together.

And don’t we need that today more than ever.