Victoria plans to double the number of international students from Southeast Asia within 10 years amid fears the lucrative sector is too reliant on students from China and India.
International education is Victoria’s biggest services export industry, generating $9.1 billion in export revenue in 2016/17 and supporting almost 58,000 Victorian jobs.
However the lion's share of Victoria’s 200,000 international students come from China and India, which could leave the state exposed if Australia’s relationship with the countries suddenly soured or they experienced an economic downturn.
“I have expressed a concern about reliance on students from any one country,” Trade Minister Philip Dalidakis told The Age.
He said Victoria enjoyed a “very strong education sector from both China and India”, with 80,000 student enrolments from China and 40,332 from India.
“But that also means I am wary if something happens with the relationship between our two countries - as at the beginning of the year with former prime minister (Malcolm) Turnbull - that does have the ability to impact on the sector.”
In January University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence accused the Turnbull government of “Sinophobic blatherings” over its concerns about Chinese spying at Australian universities, warning it was damaging the nation’s third largest export.
Grattan Institute’s Andrew Norton has also warned universities are vulnerable.
Mr Dalidakis will announce Victoria’s ambitious targets for enrolments from Southeast Asia within a decade at the launch of the Southeast Asia trade and investment strategy at an Asialink Business event on Tuesday night.
In 2017, there were about 51,000 students from Southeast Asia, accounting for one in five of all international enrolments. Of these 16,200 come from Malaysia and13,100 from Vietnam.
Just 6000 come from Indonesia despite its population of 260 million and proximity to Australia.
“We still get four times as many TAFE students from Colombia in Latin America than we do from Indonesia,” Mr Dalidakis said.
As part of the Southeast Asia strategy, Victoria is running a TAFE offshore pilot in Indonesia this year.
Last month Australia and Indonesia agreed to finalise a free trade deal, which will pave the way for Australian universities to establish campuses in Indonesia in partnership with local private institutions.
The Group of Eight coalition of leading Australian universities has argued that the establishment of Australian campuses in Indonesia would provide opportunities to students who couldn’t afford to study in Australia.
Melbourne universities already have campuses in Southeast Asia - RMIT has two in Vietnam and Monash has one in Malaysia.
“The figures suggest by 2050 nearly 65 to 66 percent of the world’s middle class will be based in Southeast Asia,” Mr Dalidakis said.
“We have a huge opportunity to tap into it. That’s why taking our international education offshore is just as important to me as looking after the international students onshore.”
At the launch of the Victorian Southeast Asia strategy, Mr Dalidakis will call on the Federal Government to better target its aid program at projects that can directly benefit the host country and Australian companies.
“If the Federal Government directed its program to target offshore TAFE, not only would Indonesian youth benefit from having more training facilities, Victorian TAFEs would also benefit from delivering those programs,” he says in a copy of the speech seen by The Age.
He will say while the Indonesian free trade deal should be a good result for both countries “the devil is in the detail and the text has not yet been released”.
Mr Dalidakis will also call on federal trade minister Simon Birmingham to undertake economic modelling before ratifying the Indonesian free trade deal to better explain its benefits to the public.
He said when bilateral free trade deals were overlayed on existing plurilateral deals such as the ASEAN free trade agreement it became increasingly difficult for small business to decipher their obligations.
“The federal government should place a moratorium on negotiating any new bilateral free trade agreements and focus its efforts on untangling existing free trade agreements.”
Jewel Topsfield is the national correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, based in Melbourne. She was previously the Indonesia correspondent. She has won multiple awards, including a Walkley for international journalism and the Lowy Institute Media Award.