The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP
The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP
 FORMER MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS, AUSTRALIA

Speech

at the launch of "Engaging the World through Education", Canberra
14 October 2003

Engaging the World through Education

Ladies and gentlemen

I take great pleasure in launching, with my colleague Dr Brendan Nelson, the Government's aptly named policy statement, Engaging the World through Education.

This important and timely statement highlights how international education contributes to Australia's engagement with the world.

People-to-people links

Education has long been one of the truly international fields of human endeavour.

Students and teachers have moved between universities in different countries from the time these institutions were founded.

They have formed an international community in the best sense, exchanging knowledge and ideas as they travelled.

Some young Australians returned to the UK to complete their education - our first "Study Abroad" students. Many Australians measured their qualifications against those from another system half-a-world away.

Australia also has a proud tradition of educating people from throughout the region and the world as a whole.

Some 50 years ago, Australia was one of the seven founding members of the original Colombo Plan. One of my predecessors as Foreign Minister, Percy Spender, took a leading role in its establishment.

The students who arrived under the Plan from all over the region to study Australia, made friends with us and enriched our own society immeasurably. They forged a crucial bond; one of trust and friendship.

Since then, we have witnessed the benefits of a growing Australian "alumnus" - including many senior figures in South-East Asian governments and business - who have returned home with a special understanding, and often strong affection for Australia.

I cannot stress enough how important these kinds of links are for furthering Australia's interests globally, and specifically in the region.

And in these more uncertain times, they help build confidence and understanding between Australia and its neighbours.

Aid

Education, of course, remains a critical issue for the developing world and for our efforts to reduce poverty and increase stability.

It is, in fact, development's most basic building block.

That is why $270 million of our $1.9 billion aid budget this financial year will be spent on education - some 14 per cent of the total.

Australian aid has trained almost 45,000 teachers, built or refurbished at least 1,200 schools and helped more than two million children gain access to education.

We have also provided more than 50,000 people with vocational training and, this year alone, there are more than 2,900 students on scholarships funded by AusAID.

In August 2001, I launched, with the President of the World Bank, the Virtual Colombo Plan, with an Australian contribution of $200 million over five years.

The original Colombo Plan brought people from developing countries to study in Australia. The Virtual Colombo Plan works in the other direction, by taking education to people in developing countries via the Internet.

These programs have provided opportunities to many millions of people who would not otherwise have had the chance to learn the skills they need.

But the most important contribution we can make to education in developing countries is in governance and capacity building.

That is, ensuring that governments can themselves provide for the education of their own citizens.

Australia has made the promotion of good governance a key objective of our foreign and aid policy, with 21 per cent or $370 million of our development assistance expenditure directed toward governance programs.

Education as an export earner

In addition to helping our less well-off neighbours, our education links have provided an important source of export revenue for Australia.

The demand for education is growing rapidly.

Now, more than ever, higher education is subject to the market forces we traditionally associate with the world of business. Terminology that we associate with competition, clients, and markets is more commonplace in the academic vocabulary.

And increasingly, universities too have been taking advantage of the IT revolution to market them throughout the world.

In the global competition for students, Australian educational institutions have adapted admirably. Thanks to innovative approaches and high standards, the education sector has become a prodigious export earner.

International education is now Australia's third largest service export industry with an estimated value of $5 billion in 2002.

Of course, there is no room for complacency in this rapidly changing market. We will require imaginative and creative measures, including greater online and offshore delivery of services - education does not stop at our campus gates.

The government is fully committed to supporting the efforts of educational research and training institutions in the global market.

We are working with other governments to remove barriers to trade in education services, develop international benchmarks, encourage wider recognition of Australian qualifications and promote greater sharing of expertise.

We are also using the WTO negotiations to seek further liberalisation of access to education services with our key trading partners.

Conclusion

Ladies and gentlemen

Engaging the world through education is a sound investment in our future.

Australia has certainly made education an important part of its foreign and trade policy considerations.

Today's ministerial statement will ensure that our education links around the world continue to bring important benefits to Australia and its partners.

I commend it to all of you gathered here and I look forward to seeing Australian education, already a great success story, going on to even better things.