Australian High Commission
New Delhi
India, Bhutan

High Commissioner Mr Barry O'Farrell AO's address at AAERI

                                                             THE ASSOCIATION OF AUSTRALIAN EDUCATION REPRESENTATIVES IN INDIA (AAERI)


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Thank you Ravi (Lochan Singh, chair of AAERI) for the kind introduction.

It is an honour to be here with the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India to discuss the “roadmap to recovery” as seen from India and Australia.

The Australian High Commission’s involvement with AAERI goes back to its inception in 1996. Perhaps now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, AAERI’s role in international education is more critical than ever – as are all stakeholders in the sector.

I want to acknowledge the very good work that this association, led by Ravi and his executive, has done in providing constructive critical advice to Government as policy settings are recast to ensure the sector pushes through to the other side of this crisis.

I used the term stakeholders but in truth we are all stewards of this wonderful international education relationship.  It is its own ecosystem and we have to nurture every part of it, not just our particular piece. Now more than ever, we must all work together for the sake of the students and for the recovery of our nations’ economies.

I took up my posting to India as Australia’s 21st High Commissioner in February this year.

Before leaving Australia I made sure to meet with as many universities as I could. And I have a long association with, and enduring passion and belief in, vocational education and training. I will use this experience and passion to endeavour to advance student mobility and India-Australia education collaborations.

My association with international education and India began in 2011 when I was Premier of New South Wales and led our first NSW trade mission to this incredible nation.

At that time I reflected:

Through our joint ventures we aim to complement each other’s needs and in doing so help each other reach the goals we have set ourselves to grow our economies and in turn enrich the opportunities and futures of our citizens.

This places international education beautifully into the context of the recently announced elevation of the bilateral relationship between India and Australia to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership or CSP.

Prime Ministers Modi and Morrison believe:

…the CSP is based on mutual understanding, trust, common interests and the shared values of democracy and rule of law. It reflects India and Australia’s strong commitment to practical global cooperation to address major challenges like COVID-19”.

The power of education to build people-to-people links and soft diplomacy for regional security cannot be understated. The framework for education engagement in the CSP makes this clear as it says:

Education, research and skills are a central component of the relationship. Both sides noted they underpin the progress and growth trajectories of our nations, and the exchange of students and academics between our countries generates valuable people-to-people links. 

I am as passionate about the CSP as I am about education and I will endeavour to do everything possible to enable the delivery of the commitments in the CSP during my appointment to India.

This is the mantra, if you like, by which the High Commission undertakes its work every day here in India.

The theme for this Convention is Roadmap to Recovery, though I feel with the CSP and several recent policy changes and student supports in place, this journey has already begun.

In saying that, the Australian Government acknowledges there are almost 6,000 Indian students with visas to study in Australia who cannot yet travel.

To those students I say sincerely, I know you must feel immensely frustrated that your dreams have been interrupted by the pandemic. I want to assure you the Australian Government is doing all it can, within a COVID-safe framework, to get you back in learning as soon as possible.

Australia’s Minister for Education Dan Tehan – himself a passionate advocate for a deep education partnership with India – readily tells me international students are important to Australian society and he wants to make sure we remain a preferred international study destination.

Across governments in Australia, planning is well underway on conditions to allow for the full return of international students. While regrettable, the uncertainty of COVID-19 dictates there is no fixed timeline yet for that full return of international students.

Australians at all levels recognise Indian students studying in Australia make a valued contribution to our society and their welfare is important to us.   Many students opted to remain in Australia and become part of our community – and one of the great aspects of our two countries’ relationship dynamic is Australia’s Indian diaspora.

Australia’s population is made up of almost 700,000 people of Indian ancestry, that’s 1 in every 35 Australian citizens!

With COVID-19 disrupting all of our lives, the Australian government has announced a number of measures to support our international students from across the world including India.

To date, an estimated AUD$1.3 billion has been pledged by the Federal, state and territory governments in Australia, alongside education providers and the broader community to support international students during the COVID-19 crisis.

This includes through welfare services, financial assistance, mental health support and emergency relief initiatives.

Support is also being delivered by students themselves, through their own associations and networks across Australia.

To tell you more about some of the support available, we now have a dedicated landing hub for international education for Indian students on the Study in Australia website.

This hub showcases some of the personal stories of how Indian students have contributed to the Australian COVID-19 response and been supported in Australia during this time. 

For students just beginning their journey and thinking about international study, we have also introduced new Course Search functions to the portal.

There are also free Masterclasses on the hub that you can view and participate in to give you a taste of some of what Australian education offers.

These initiatives will help students and their families begin their journey of study in Australia.

Considering the challenges of COVID, the Australian Government has also introduced flexible visa arrangements to assist current and prospective students.

Graduates who held a student visa will be eligible to apply for a post-study work visa outside Australia and online study will count towards post-study work visa requirements.

Students will be able to lodge a further student visa application free of charge, if they are unable to complete their studies due to COVID‑19.

Flexible visa measures have also included extending student working hours in sectors critical to the COVID-19 response. For instance, the work international students are doing to provide support in the disability services and aged care sectors, is indicative of the contribution international students are making to the greater Australian community at this difficult time.

Importantly, the Australian Government has commenced granting student visas lodged outside Australia. This means when Australia’s borders re-open, students will already have visas and be able to make arrangements to travel.

As you will have seen in the media, the Australian Government is also carefully considering pilot projects for international students to return to Australian universities.

 The Australian Prime Minister’s Roadmap to a COVID-safe Australia makes clear the Government supports the return of international students to Australia in a COVID-safe environment.

These pilots will be small scale, led by state and territory governments in partnership with education institutions. Robust health, quarantine, border and provider protocols will be in place when they can occur.

It is my hope that the pilots will pave the way for the return of all international students to Australia when safe to do so.

Australia’s states and territories will make decisions about how and when to move between steps of the COVID-safe Australia framework based on local conditions and in line with public health advice.

The Australian Government is working with states and territories on the arrangements.

It is important we remember circumstances across Australia are subject to change in line with advice from health authorities, and states and territories will need to consider this in the design and implementation of their pilots.

It is intended the pilots will assure our international students whose study and lives have been severely disrupted by the pandemic that Australia is working towards their return.

My inbuilt bias is of course for students from South Asia to be part of any pilot return.

The reality though for Indian student participation is largely logistical and determined by COVID-19.

As we know travel from India is currently subject to certain conditions imposed by India’s Ministry of Home Affairs as well as those from governments the destination countries.

From India flights are currently operating under Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) to repatriate citizens with very strict policies as to who can board; and through a small number of bilateral agreements with countries with eased restrictions.   

Malaysia and Singapore, important transit hubs for Australia, have still not opened their ports for Indian citizens.

While it is possible that by mid to late September, India will commence regular flights to other countries, there doesn’t seem enough certainty to plan a pilot for Indian students just yet.

Before I close I want to say something about India’s new National Education Policy (NEP) – it’s first in three decades.

The NEP is as sweeping as it is transformational.

Many of the changes require legislating, and while some have been made already, others may take a couple of decades to be realised.

A small part of the NEP is dedicated to the internationalisation of India’s education system, including allowing the top 100 universities in the world to set up campuses in India – and at least seven of these are Australian universities.

The focus on increasing quality and expanding access provides other opportunities for India and Australia to collaborate as governance and regulatory systems and frameworks are built.

I am impressed with how the Indian Government is pressing ahead at great speed to implement the NEP recommendations.

At a time when the pandemic threatens to contract India’s economy by 5% this year according to some experts, the Modi Government remains determined to realise India’s demographic dividend – a bulging working age population requiring education and skills to build that road to economic recovery and future prosperity.

If nothing else, COVID-19 has rushed in digitisation, such as greater online education delivery, which will drive productivity, market penetration and better service delivery.

Large-scale structural reform is being implemented in India and the NEP is a great example of that.

Now more than ever the strength and momentum of the India and Australia relationship is critical and our education systems are becoming increasingly aligned.

Throughout this pandemic and through the recovery we will continue to work together to shape the region we want to live in, and education will continue to drive this bond.

With the frameworks I have mentioned above, I believe the journey to recovery has commenced and we’re all fellow travellers. With respect, I believe we require less a roadmap and more a commitment to collaboration, maintenance of quality and unity of purpose.

Let us embrace this opportunity that others, in a crisis, might waste.

For now, I hope you, your families and friends remain safe and well wherever they are.