Australia must establish an Office for Education Trade Diversification and appoint an Ambassador for Australian Education, experts from The Australian National University (ANU) argue.

The call comes as thousands of international students remain locked out of university campuses across Australia due to ongoing border closures, as well as increasingly tense relations between Beijing and Canberra.

In their paper, Protecting education exports: minimising the damage of China’s future economic coercionDr Dirk van der Kley and Dr Benjamin Herscovitch argue “education is Australia’s only remaining export valued over $10 billion annually which is both reliant on China and which Beijing can target without significant self-harm”.

“Australia needs to be prepared for the possibility that Beijing will further discourage Chinese students from studying in Australia,” the authors write.

“If there was a significant drop in students from China, the revenue and research loss would be impossible to fully replace through other international markets because China is the largest source of globally mobile students. It would also be costly for the government to step in and fully fund the gap.”

The authors are calling for the Government to bring together Australia’s education diplomacy and government-led promotion. They argue this will build resilience and reduce the impact of any potential coercion, as well as diversify the countries Australia attracts international students from.

“The Australian Government has no mechanism to coordinate efforts to diversify education export markets or cohesively promote Australian education – this makes the sector more exposed to coercion,” the authors write.

“There is an opportunity for DFAT to establish an Office for Education Trade Diversification given education is Australia’s largest service export by far. The Office would coordinate international education policy and pursue a whole-of-government export diversification agenda.

“While no market could replace China, there is capacity to tap into growth elsewhere and to divert market share from other education exporters.”

In their paper, Dr van der Kley and Dr Herscovitch also argue Australia should reform the Foreign Relations Act for universities.  

According to the authors, the act is burdensome and negatively impacts on universities’ autonomy. They say it should instead be replaced by an International Research Transparency Scheme. 

“The current system is unbelievably burdensome for Australian universities and also DFAT,” they write. “It discourages smaller international agreements being pursued by universities, including in diversity markets.

“We propose to remove educational and smaller research agreements from the Foreign Relations Act to reduce the burden on both sides. Larger research deals should be subject to intense public transparency through a registry but not ministerial veto.

“Our proposals are cost-effective, actionable policy options that the government can implement quickly. They will help diversify education exports should China coerce Australia in this sector. If the bilateral relationship improves, these policy options do not prevent education exports to China.

“They could form the first steps of the government’s broader Australian Strategy for International Education 2021-30.”

Protecting education exports: minimising the damage of China’s future economic coercion is published by the ANU National Security College as part of its ‘Policy Options’ series.

Read the full paper online.

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