Education: The Driving Force of the 21st Century

Launch of Australia Awards Scholarship Scheme

Customs House, Brisbane

Speech. Check against delivery, E&OE

13 May 2011

It was Nelson Mandela, after a lifetime’s struggle for justice and reconciliation, who said that “education is the most powerful weapon …you can use to change the world”.

For an individual, education is an investment that helps them achieve their human potential.

It exposes people to new bodies of knowledge. It exposes people to new ways of thinking. It opens new employment opportunities. It gives people the tools to negotiate the rapid changes of this new century — and to prosper. It also instils the capacity to lead.

But for nations at large, it is much more than this.

Delivered to a generation, education can be a society’s pathway out of poverty. It becomes the engine room of ideas, of innovation, of imagining a different national future. It provides structural benefits to nations across the board — in governance, productivity, health and gender-equality — unlocking the full potential of half of humankind. Education is the building block of economies. And the foundation stone of nations.

Education will also be the driving force of this 21st century — the century of relentless, restless driving globalisation. The century in which the only constant will be change itself.

The most educated, the most skilled, the best trained nations will also be the strongest nations and the most resilient economies of the 21st century.

Education = Australia’s Future

Australia has every capacity to succeed in the 21st century.

The nation recognises the vital importance of education. The Australian Government is delivering an “education revolution” with the objective of building the best educated, best trained and best skilled workforce in the world.

We are putting the investment in, from early childhood education, primary and secondary schools, our technical colleges, our universities and our leading national research institutes. And we are measuring carefully the results.

Australia is a growing global centre of learning: last year, we welcomed nearly 620 000 international student enrolments in our universities, our technical colleges, our language schools and our high schools.

Over 100 000 of these enrolments were in Queensland, the smart state, with its expertise in mining, environment, marine science, life sciences, biotechnology, biomedicine, tropical agriculture, tropical medicine, health and education.

Students come because an Australian education — an Australian degree, an Australian qualification is recognised the world over. It is known to be rigorous, demanding, innovative, ground-breaking.

Australia is one of the highest-achieving academic nations in the world, on a per capita basis. Australia has five universities in the world’s top 100 , including this great University of Queensland on whose premises we meet. Australia has produced 14 Nobel laureates, 13 of them in science.

But another reason Australia will do well this century is because we look outwards.

Australia is located amongst, or engaged with, the dynamic growth centres of the 21st century: Asia, Africa, Latin America. The better these new growth centres do this century, the better Australia will do. And that is why we need to engage with them more so they can more effectively meet the challenges ahead of them:

Challenges like building sustainable mining regimes - regimes that help countries both develop their natural resources and safeguard their environment - regimes that properly regulate mineral exploitation and manage sustainably the revenue flow;

Challenges like adapting to the effects of climate change;

Challenges like improving energy efficiency, and how to improve water efficiency;

Challenges like confronting the risk of pandemic disease;

Challenges like managing financial resources wisely and putting them to most productive use.

In all these fields and more, Queensland and Australian centres of learning are showing the way.

International Fellowships and Scholarships — the Birth of the Australia Awards.

There are many examples of Australian education institutions deepening engagement with the development challenges of the world.

AusAID fellowships are already helping talented African students develop expertise in geospatial information systems, regulation of the resources sector, and sustainable management of resources revenue.

This is an area in which the University of Queensland's Sustainable Minerals Institute can make a profound contribution.

Queensland University of Technology is already delivering fellowships to help Kenyan communities meet the demands of adapting to climate change and employing renewable energy.

Queensland’s International Water Centre is already helping train leaders who work on the health of China’s great Pearl and Yellow rivers.

And the University of Queensland is already a major AusAID research partner, hosting important regional health centres like the Health Information Systems knowledge hub and the Asia Pacific Malaria Elimination Network.

So the institutions of Australia, and of Queensland, are already helping meet the great challenges we face together.

Australia has also needed a scholarship program and an internationally recognised scholarship brand worthy of this role.

One of the achievements of this Government of which I am proudest is the establishment of the Australia Awards.

I launched the Australia Asia Awards in at the National University of Singapore in November 2009.

I said at that time that the Australia Awards were:

“Awards inspired by the original Colombo Plan. Awards that will become for Australia the Colombo Plan of the 21st Century.”

The Australia Awards unite 15 different previously scattered scholarship pathways under one recognisable banner.

The Australia Awards also vastly expand the intake of international scholarship holders.

And they expand also the number of talented Australians we are able to send overseas to deepen their expertise.

Sixty years ago, in the aftermath of World War II and on the threshold of a new era of decolonisation in South and South East Asia, Australia played a proud role in training a generation of new leaders of the region.

Under the Colombo plan, over the subsequent 30 years, over 20 000 students from the region came to Australia on scholarship.

As then Minister for External Affairs Percy Spender said in his statement in Parliament this assistance would not flow simply in one direction, rather:

“it should aim at stimulating the productive capacities of these countries, and to that extent we look upon it as a prelude to the promotion of trade from which Australia can profit in full measure.”

The tremendous growth of our region in the period since has demonstrated the wisdom of those words.

With the launch of the Australia Awards, the Australian Government now reclaims that mantle.

Not just in the calibre of the scholarship - but also in the greatly increased number we offer. In 2007, the Australian Government offered around 1900 scholarships. In 2011, we are offering 4136 Australia Awards. By 2015, we plan to offer around 5000 Australia Awards per year.

Australia will therefore play a key role in skilling, challenging and developing new leaders, especially in the new centres of growth of the future.

And, as we do so, we are determined that the Australia Awards be known globally as among the world’s most respected awards. They will be in no way less demanding, or less enriching than those great awards.

They will bring immense benefit to Australia and to Queensland.

This is a significant investment ‑ it’s one we’re proud to make. We know that these students ‑ you ‑ will repay this investment 100-fold.

The investment would be worthwhile even if only for the immediate economic benefit. Australia’s total education exports were worth $19.1 billion last financial year — they represent our third-biggest export item, bigger even than tourism.

Last financial year, these exports contributed $2.85 billion to Queensland’s economy, representing growth of 17 per cent each year for the past five years.

These numbers will go up and down over time, reflecting factors like the strength of the Australian dollar and our visa and immigration settings.

But the bottom line is that education is, and will remain, an industry vital to Australia’s future. And the attractiveness, rigour and prestige of our education services are qualities we must nurture, including through the Australia Awards.

A quality experience for foreign students like you in Australia is something you’re going to tell your friends about, going to tell your colleagues about, going to tell your children about — and this is going to feed into the flow of future students to Australia, whether they are on public scholarships or whether they came as private students.

The 1075 Australia Award holders who will study in Queensland in 2011, are likely to inject around $40 million to Queensland’s economy this year.

But of course these scholarships contribute so much more to Queensland and Australia than this.

Two hundred scholarship recipients are here today. You were selected in different ways, but all of you are highly talented, highly motivated people, and proud ambassadors for your countries.

You will take back to your country knowledge that will help you lead: in politics; public administration and business; in science; agriculture; mining; and the environment; in health; law; economics; financial management and, of course, in education itself.

You will take back new skills and new techniques that will help your country develop.

You will leave Australia with a prestigious qualification, earned under a prestigious award, and you will leave part of a prestigious network of alumni.

But you will leave us in Australia, us in Queensland, with much more, because you will deepen our centres of learning, with new knowledge, research and academic links.

You will boost our productivity with the new learning we will generate with you.

You will help us form new networks of personal and professional relationships across policy, business and science to our partner regions, essential to confront the great challenges of the 21st century.

Establishing a World-class alumni network

Just as we are determined that Australian education will remain world-class, and determined that the Australia Awards will be known as world-class, we are determined also that you will be part of a world-class alumni network.

We are putting in the effort to ensure that the Australia Awards alumni network is the best in the region and one of the best in the world.

We have established a professional secretariat within my department to ensure this. It will be a network worthy of the illustrious Australian alumni already making a contribution around the globe.

Like Indonesia’s Vice President Professor Dr Boediono, whom some have dubbed ‘Indonesia’s financial rudder’, who completed two degrees in Australia on scholarship — the first his undergraduate degree in economics at UWA, the second his Masters at Monash.

Like another brilliant Indonesian scholar, my counterpart, Foreign Minister Dr Marty Natalegawa, whose doctorate in international relations is from the ANU.

Like Professor David Kavanamur who completed a doctorate in management at the University of Western Sydney and put the skills to use in leading a task force to develop a 40-year national strategic vision for Papua New Guinea.

Like Mr Muhammad Saidur Rahman of Bangladesh who completed a Master of Disaster Services Administration and is now director of the Bangladesh Disaster Preparedness Centre and a lead adviser in how Bangladesh and the broader international community can improve the governance of disaster response.

Like Dr Ly Qui Trung, the founder of the Pho24 restaurant chain, which has over 60 outlets worldwide including in Sydney, London, Hong Kong and Seoul, who studied at Griffith University here in Brisbane and is an alumnus from 2004.

We are also determined that the new Australia Awards will have the best possible strategic oversight.

That is why I am delighted to announce today the new Australia Awards board, to be chaired by Professor Geoff Gallop AC, former distinguished Premier of Western Australia, and now the Director of the Graduate School of Government at the University of Sydney.

He will be joined by members at the very top of the academic, business and government communities:

  • Jillian Broadbent AO, Chancellor of the University of Wollongong
  • Professor Peter Coaldrake AO, Vice-Chancellor of the Queensland University of Technology
  • The Hon Bruce Baird AO, Chair of the Tourism and Transport Forum
  • Ms Simone Bartley the CEO of Seizmic Thinking
  • And the heads of the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and AusAID.

What is our purpose?

To make sure that your connection with Australia is an enduring one — of benefit to your nations and of course, of enduring benefit to Australia.

We will maintain up to date alumni contact directories.

We will use these to supply regular information on Australian business opportunities; on developments in our foreign policy; in our public administration; and in your relevant disciplines and fields in Australia; as well, of course, as your own alma mater.

We will also organise, through our embassies abroad, specific alumni events.

Again, the mission is to maintain and enhance your engagement with the Australia of the future.


There is no weapon more powerful in this globalised world than the transformative power of education.

My message to you students here today is that the Australia Award you undertake is to benefit you individually, as well as the relationships between our nations collectively.

It will open to you new knowledge, new thinking, new skills and a new network.

Get the most from Australia. Get the most from this beautiful state of Queensland.

It will reap dividends for this state of Queensland, for its institutions of learning, and for its economy.

It will reap dividends for the knowledge, productivity and capability of our nation.

And it will reaffirm this nation as a world centre of learning.

And so it gives me great pleasure to launch in Australia, the Australia Awards, and the first gathering of Australia Awards recipients and alumni.

I am sure this will be the first of a long series of networking and alumni events, both in Australia and overseas.

Study hard, have fun, but not too much fun.


Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555