The export of education is an Australian success story. It is now Australia's third largest export industry (number one in Victoria). It has grown in an unplanned way, by trial and error. It is now time to make the most of Australia's progress by creating a minister for international education.
Each international student is worth at least $40,000. Students not only pay their educational fees, but they also spend locally on accommodation, food, transport and entertainment. There is also the tourist component when the relatives come to Australia for the graduation ceremonies. Students could be particularly important for regional economies (not least given the downturn in agricultural employment opportunities).
In per capita terms, Australia has more foreign students than any other western country. But Australia's prominence may not be due so much to Australia's skill, as other countries not yet learning how to make the most of international education. If the United States, for example, improved its student experience (such as providing permission to do part-time work), then it could attract far more of the international student market. Australia needs to capitalize on its first-mover advantage.
We are now living in the "education economy". Agriculture and manufacturing remain important but they employ fewer and fewer people. Education is a growth sector as humankind mobilizes its brain power for the next great leap forward. The big corporations used to be based on energy and manufacturing (such as Shell, Ford and General Motors); now the big corporations are knowledge-based (such as Intel, Microsoft and Apple).
The Commonwealth Office of Education was created in 1945, when Canberra began its reinvention as the national government. (As recently as the 1930s, the premiers of NSW and Victoria were as important, if not more important, than the prime minister). Canberra acquired additional powers in World War II and used them as a springboard for the "nation-building" that began after 1945.
Exactly four decades later, the federal minister for education announced a new overseas student policy which allowed the admission of full-time paying international students to Australian educational institutions. A great deal has flowed from that 1985 decision. It was a Labor decision which the Liberal-Nationals have broadly continued; there has been no attempt to reverse it.
But, as recent scandals have shown (such as the "pink batts" home insulation tragedies), Canberra often goes into projects too quickly, with too little thought given to the wider consequences of a decision.
A common problem is the compartmentalization of departmental thinking. There is a lack of considered thinking about how any decision will affect other issues. There are, for example, at least five federal ministers with an involvement in international education.
The 1985 "export of education" decision was seen as a way of helping educational reform. But it was not just an "education" matter.
International students have studied in Australia for well over a century. Religious-based educational institutions, for example, have brought in students with a view to training them for service back in their own countries. During one of the usual Canberra mess-ups in coping with the rapid unplanned growth in students after 1985, the department of immigration overlooked this category of students, and suddenly the institutions – I was then working for one of them – were obliged to handle the fallout from Canberra's ignorance whereby it accidently blocked these students from coming to Australia. It was not done deliberately: it was simply that Canberra had not thought about this long-standing work.
Another way of "slicing and dicing" a policy matter is the lack of coordination at national, state and territory levels. For example, education departments at national and state levels want international students, while state departments of health deter them from coming by charging higher rates for hospital treatment than domestic patients. Similarly some state departments of transport discriminate against international students by not providing the same transport concessions as given to domestic students.
There is therefore a need for a "whole of government" approach. There should be one national focal point to coordinate the national government response to this industry: hence the need for a minister for international education.
The minister would coordinate policy on such matters as education, immigration, health, and public transport. The minister would also address the bewildering array of regulations that deal with this industry. The regulations are certainly needed - but they need to be rationalized.
The minister could also focus on some of the long-term issues confronting international education. For example, when one recalls how China's involvement in manufacturing has transformed (for good or ill) the manufacturing sectors in so many other countries, it is worth speculating on when will the same impact be felt in international education? China in 2011 had 290,000 international students from 194 countries; the China steam roller in international education has already begun.
Australia is currently enjoying a boom in educational education. We need to make the most of this opportunity before other western countries and China start to learn from Australia's success and provide better competition. A minister for international education could lead that process.