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Parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade
23/02/2012
Australia's overseas representation

STRIBLEY, Mr Nathan, Policy Manager, Committee for Melbourne

[14:16]

ACTING CHAIR ( Dr Stone ): Welcome to Mr Nathan Stribley, policy manager, representing the Committee for Melbourne. You have before you a document which provides some procedural advice to witnesses. We ask you to make yourself familiar with that information. Before proceeding to questions, would you like to make a short introductory statement?

Mr Stribley : Yes. For the benefit of everyone here, I would like to introduce the Committee for Melbourne and make sure that everyone is aware of who we are and who we represent. The Committee for Melbourne was founded in 1985 by a number of business leaders who were unimpressed with the state of the Victorian economy at the time. They proceeded to have discussions about ways in which they could further progress the economy towards some sort of growth. At the moment we represent around 150 business organisations from the private sector with both local and international focus, as well as a number of the international higher education institutions across Melbourne. We also represent a large fraternity from the diplomatic community in Melbourne and a large number of social services, or NGOs.

We see Melbourne as a global city and its competitiveness is definitely underpinned by its connectivity internationally. This is increasingly so in the way that we are going in the globalised world and with mass communication technologies. It is important to have good cultural diplomacy efforts and foster those connections internationally.

I am happy to take questions. Would you like me to give a statement about the submission?

ACTING CHAIR: You could give a brief summary; it is a very succinct submission, but by all means give us your key points.

Mr Stribley : Our submission said that the international education sector contributes billions to the economy each year. Not only is it a great export earner but, obviously, a fantastic opportunity as we see it for introduction to the Australian culture in terms of business values and providing potential connectivity back into those regions once they exit. By way of numbers, in 2010 we had 470,000 students studying across Australia on student visas, and Victoria represented roughly one-third of those numbers. So you are looking at a large constituency there who are going back in, too, and looking at gaining access to future business leaders in the public sector and the community and political spheres.

Obviously, we see the role of international education in Australia's diplomacy and future export strategies being a key component. CFM recommends that for each Australian embassy within those regions to look at establishing an Australia alumni network. This would then foster those connections into the future and current political leaders and also business and community leaders that are represented in those regions.

Mr RUDDOCK: There is not such a network?

Mr Stribley : We did identify in the statement that there are a number of universities that are doing this of their own accord and for various reasons. Also, there are a number of business groups that foster these sorts of connections as well. But we see potential for the Australian government to take the lead in terms of the diplomacy and in creating a broader network through what I suspect are quite easy and cost-effective means.

ACTING CHAIR: Using e-diplomacy, or virtual networks of students, is well established now in all the universities. I think there is also an Australian network of students able to tap into each other in different countries, is there not? Have you explored that from the perspective of the Committee of Melbourne? Or do you see this face-to-face interaction in each country as the most important?

Mr Stribley : Good point. We were talking about face-to-face interaction, particularly fostering that from the embassy point of view and potentially providing feedback for incoming trade missions and things like that which are even occurring today as we speak.

There is a role for e-communication to work in this sphere but I think that with face-to-face time providing those connectivities when people go on these sorts of trade missions et cetera there is an opportunity for that to become more prominent and led, perhaps, by the Australian government rather than individual organisations.

ACTING CHAIR: Bearing in mind those half million or so students each year are very segmented into tertiary, postgraduate and then VET—there used to be a lot of hairdressing and cookery, for example—

Mr Stribley : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: So some of those do not see much in common with each other and that is why the universities tend to develop their own alumni, because alumnis are often more impressed or excited about who is not a member than who is.

Have you talked to the Agent-General of Victoria—Victoria's own diplomatic trade mission effort in different countries—to develop a Victorian alumni?

Mr Stribley : I do not think we have explored that particular suggestion, no. But we do see that there is a broad range of skill sets that come to Victoria for different reasons—you identified the VET institutions and the not-for-profit organisations as well. As I mentioned, I think there is a role for the embassies themselves to get involved, rather than the individual organisations.

Mr RUDDOCK: In my own experience, I have met alumni groups when travelling abroad.

ACTING CHAIR: I have too.

Mr RUDDOCK: I think one of the things we might do is ask whether foreign affairs has some data. Obviously, if we are going to explore this issue we ought to see what objective data they have.

ACTING CHAIR: And their websites.

Mr RUDDOCK: The group that I saw was in Pakistan, actually—in Lahore. There were several hundred students who came to meet with me when I was a minister. It was not as if there was—

ACTING CHAIR: And that was based on a university? Or on Australia's—

Mr RUDDOCK: No. It was not around a particular university, it was just an informal—

ACTING CHAIR: It was Australian study?

Mr RUDDOCK: Yes. The Committee for Melbourne is about trying to get people abroad to focus on doing business in Victoria.

Mr Stribley : Yes.

Mr RUDDOCK: I do not know that I see that as being particularly germane to our reference, which is: where are we adequately represented or inadequately represented? Do you see some of your activities being better pursued if Australia had enhanced representation in particular parts of the world?

Mr Stribley : It would create an advantage for all capital cities and all of Australia in terms of attracting investment and creating those linkages back into those countries, but it would not create a sole advantage for Melbourne or Victoria.

Mr RUDDOCK: Most of your overseas students would come from China and India, wouldn't they?

Mr Stribley : Correct. I think one third, or 26.9 per cent, of international students are from China and 14.6 per cent are from India.

Mr RUDDOCK: Do you see our representation in those areas as adequate? If we were represented in the more regional areas of China, would that enhance the number of Chinese students coming? Do you see other areas of potential student enrolment where, if Australia were better represented, Victoria might benefit?

Mr Stribley : I do not think the sole purpose was to promote the higher educational sector. I think that might have been a by-product of the connections or the stronger linkages back in through the Australian government. I think it is about ensuring that, when these people return to their countries and become future leaders in whatever field they study—hairdressing may not be the right skill set—there are those opportunities to foster those engagements and create potential business opportunities.

Senator STEPHENS: Following on from Mr Ruddock's question about the relationship that the Melbourne committee has with our diplomatic posts, have you or the committee had the opportunity to visit some of the posts where you are looking to attract overseas students?

Mr Stribley : Not specifically, no. We do have the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and also the Department of Business and Innovation as members. That is our linkage into that area.

Senator STEPHENS: You have not had a personal experience of any of the challenges.

Mr Stribley : No, not personally.

Mr JENKINS: I would like to make a comment. I think the tracking of alumni has been patchy. It appears to be a responsibility of the posts and for some posts the resources required are not there. One of the greatest meetings I have had in recent times of alumni was with those from the Indonesian parliament. They ranged from as far back as the Colombo Plan days right through to the modern, from technical training through to postgraduate tertiary training. Both Senator Stephens and Mr Ruddock have asked about the interface between the committee and representation overseas. I would leave it at that.

ACTING CHAIR ( Mrs Gash ): Before I became a member of parliament I held the position of manager of international business for Melbourne University and spent a lot of time developing Melbourne University's alumni. They were very active in Hong Kong, Singapore and so on. In those countries they were interested in other universities' alumni from Australia. I think it is something we need to think about as extra value to what we do in our ongoing relationships with the students that we have trained. Do you have anything to add, Mr Stribley?

Mr Stribley : I have nothing more to add, thank you.