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Australia: Confidence high among educators despite long federal election

Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal-National Coalition has formed a government in Australia and announced a new international education minister.

International educators are confident the political turnovers won't impact the sector but some have voiced concerns that they are hindering gains that could be made. Photo: Navitas

"I can’t imagine any government regressing on the progress we’ve made"

The news comes after a marathon (for Australia) eight-week election campaign followed by more than a week of counting and doubt over which party would form government.

Countering broader community uncertainty over the effect either a Labor or Coalition Government would have, industry leaders were confident international education would remain buoyed by its recent upward trajectory.

“I really don’t think it’ll make much of a difference, whatever the result of the election is,” predicted Peter Mackey, Study NSW director. “We’ve been really successful in finally getting a level of awareness at the federal government level at the importance of the sector.

“We just get on with running the country despite regular leadership changes at the top”

“There’ll probably be a little bit of uncertainty for a while, but I can’t imagine any government regressing on the progress we’ve made.”

While a level of uncertainty was cleared early last week after Turnbull declared victory, his ministerial lineup wasn’t announced until this week.

Chief among his announcements, Sen Richard Colbeck’s international education responsibilities were consolidated into Sen Simon Birmingham’s Education and Training portfolio, in response to doubt over Colbeck’s re-election prospects.

“I look forward to playing a leading role in Australia’s $19bn international education sector, including implementation of our recently released International Education Strategy 2025,” Birmingham said in a statement, adding thanks to Colbeck and Sen Scott Ryan who was also replaced, relinquishing the Vocational Education and Skills portfolio to Karen Andrews.

In broader terms, the election was more evidence of Australia’s political changeability. Since 2007, Australia has had five prime ministerial appointments (of four people), four elections and three leadership spills – an Australian political mechanism in which a party’s leadership is vacated and members vote on a new or returning leader.

The industry has seen six ministers for education and training, and the first international education minister has now lost the position less than a year in the job.

The election also saw a number of candidates displacing major party representatives in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

“Happily, we just get on with running the country despite regular leadership changes at the top!” quipped Phil Honeywood CEO of the International Education Association of Australia.

“Momentum for international education policy implementation has been maintained primarily because of the Michael Chaney Report of five years ago and Australia’s first ever International Education Strategy,” said Honeywood.

“Ironically, given our political instability, more has been achieved over this five year period than ever before.”

“We need consistency in terms of ministers”

The Australian Council for Private Education and Training‘s CEO Rod Camm agreed the hard work done to ensure the industry’s viability was paying off, but said the “revolving-door” of ministers hindered the gains the industry could be making.

“Even if the political agenda remains largely the same, you still have to start briefing ministers. We need consistency in terms of ministers. We certainly do call on the new government to commit to making sure [new ministers] see out their term.”

While numbers showed no indication the changes in government had impacted student interest, Camm said international students are very politically aware.

“They ask us about this and they find it unusual. We’ve been lucky so far that it hasn’t had a significant impact on our students numbers, but it will.”

Meanwhile, chief executive of Universities Australia, Belinda Robinson, offered a more upbeat response saying opportunity lies within the changes.

“This election has delivered a large number of Independent, micro party and minor party representatives into the federal parliament,” she observed. “We have the opportunity in this term to assist, particularly the newcomers, in their thinking about what sort of Australia they want and the critical role of education to make sure people are not left behind.”

Still, she acknowledged the political landscape of the past decade had “made it much harder for universities to plan beyond the short-term.”

Rod Jones, CEO of Australia-based global education provider, Navitas, echoed calls for the newly elected government to build on the “good work already done” and to ensure a “high quality, agile and innovative sustainable tertiary education system in Australia.”

Jones added that initiatives like AIE2025 and the Australia Global Alumni Engagement Strategies are products of  “the significant amount of work done to achieve this integrated, whole of government national international education framework”.

“We anticipate, and actively support, a continued focus on this critical sector,” he said.

The full result of Australia’s federal election remains undetermined, with 11 senate seats still in doubt, including Colbeck’s seat.

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