Australian Embassy

Minister-Counsellor Katherine Vicker's speech at the 2018 Yenching Global Symposium, PKU


Minister Counsellor Katherine Vicker's speech at the 2018 Yenching Global Symposium Research Gala

Peking University 


Thursday 12 April 2018


I would like to start by thanking the Academy for inviting me to speak at this year’s Research Gala on such an important theme.

What I want to focus on in my talk is the central role that student mobility is playing in China’s journey in a global future – and the central role it will continue to play as China strives to meet its ambitious economic development goals.

China has been a driving force in the global explosion of student mobility over the past 40 years.

According to estimates by the Chinese Ministry of Education, just over 5 million Chinese students have studied abroad over the last 40 years, with 1.4 million currently enrolled in overseas higher education institutions.

The Chinese Minister for Education recently announced that in 2017 China set a new record for numbers of students leaving the country to pursue advanced studies -  608,400 students – an almost 12 per cent increase on students leaving China in 2016.

Of these, a large number chose to study in Australia.

Chinese students account for 30 per cent of all international students studying in Australia, and as such they make an enormous contribution to Australia’s economy and society, and to making Australian university campuses some of the most internationalised in the world. 

When we survey international students, as we do every two years, they report very high levels of satisfaction with the quality of the teaching and learning and with the overall student experience which is underpinned by world-leading and actively implemented legal protections for international students. [Chinese respondents to the higher education part of the survey make up 27 per cent]

The reputation of Australia’s qualifications, institutions and the education system as a whole, along with personal safety and security and the quality of research are the top reasons that international students choose to study and undertake research training in Australia.

International students are also attracted to the opportunity to combine study with work experience that comes with an Australian student visa, as well as with Australia’s generous post-study work visa arrangements.

The institutional partnerships that have developed between Chinese and Australian universities have also grown with the numbers of Chinese students coming to Australia – to the point where Australian universities now have more institutional agreements with Chinese universities than with any other country – 1,400 according to the latest data from Universities Australia.

Institutional partnerships are the foundation for student mobility and support not only Chinese students to Australia, but also Australian students to undertake student mobility programs in China. 

China is now the second most popular study destination for Australian undergraduate mobility students and on current trends could well become the most popular in the near future.

Australian students come to China to gain an understanding of Chinese language, society and culture, and to gain first-hand experience of how to build professional and business connections with Australia’s largest trading partner.

Chinese students come to Australia to study in world-class universities that give them the chance to develop a cross-cultural skillset which will equip them to deal with the globalised economy and China’s growing role in it.

And, according to last week’s statements from the Minister of Education, Chinese graduates are not just going out in record numbers, they are also returning to China in record numbers. MoE figures show that almost 84 per cent of students who have pursued further studies abroad in the forty years from 1978, returned to China – two thirds have returned in the past 6 years.

This represents an extraordinary inflow of human capital to China’s businesses and professions, but also to Chinese research and development.

The global phenomenon that is Chinese student mobility has created the conditions for  what the OECD refer to as a significant brain circulation effect – with doctoral and post-doctoral graduates returning to China to establish the international collaboration networks that are driving Chinese research and innovation.

If we accept the assertion that there is a correlation between the mobility of students in a given direction and the mobility of scientists in the opposite direction, then China is the global leader in brain circulation – which can only be a good thing for the future of Chinese research and development and a good thing for countries such as Australia which have extensive research and innovation partnerships with China.

Australia and China’s research and innovation relationship stretches back longer than our diplomatic relations, back to the 1960s when a scientist (Professor Chris Christiansen), who was well known for his pioneering work in radio astronomy at Sydney University, came to China to deliver lectures to the Chinese Academy of Science about radio astronomy and radar technology.  This started a decade-long program of two-way exchange of scientists which enabled Chinese radio astronomy to enter a process of technological modernisation.

Fast forward to today to Guizhou province where China has built the impressive FAST telescope facility and is working with international research partners (including Australia) in looking to the skies for new discoveries that can tells us about where life on earth came from as well as search for other worlds.  It has also generated spin-off research in big data analytics and the development of new advanced materials.

This is but one example of the brain circulation effect in action.

A more recent example of the way in which student mobility can deliver a brain gain to China is in the story of Professor Li Hong, a microbiologist from Sichuan Province. Professor Li did his PhD at the University of Western Australia, under the supervision of Australian Nobel Laureate Professor Barry Marshall AC.  Li was one of two post graduate scholarships awarded to students in Sichuan University in the wake of the devastating 2008 earthquake.  Following the completion of his doctorate, Li returned to Sichuan and continued to work with Professor Marshall to establish the West China Marshall Research Center for Infectious Diseases in Chengdu.  Li and Marshall have since co-published one book and four scientific papers.

The story of Li and Marshall is just one of the thousands of research collaboration partnerships that make up the over 7,000 jointly authored publications between Australian and Chinese researchers each year for 2016 and 2017. 

The value of international partnerships such as this is immediate – internationally mobile researchers publish in journals with higher impact rankings.  But of course, the longer-term impact (the impact beyond the academy) on people’s health and wellbeing, on the development of new technologies, products and services that drive the economy and create jobs  – are the key to our shared global prosperity and quality of life.

This is the true value of the explosion in foreign students engaged in tertiary education programs world-wide – and this explosion has in large part been driven by the mobility of Chinese students (supported predominantly by their own resources and the resources of their families).

This journey isn’t over for China.  This week at the Bo’ao Forum for Asia, President Xi spoke about China’s commitment to strengthening international cooperation in education saying that “We should promote mutual learning amongst civilizations to help build the bridges of friendship, drive social progress and safeguard peace for the region and beyond.”

If you look at the continued growth and support of Chinese international student mobility, coupled with the way Chinese universities are rocketing up in international rankings  (remembering that many of the most well-known rankings are driven by research metrics), then the future for an increasingly globally engaged China is a very bright one.

Thank you again for inviting me to speak, I look forward to hearing more about your research projects today and how you see them contributing to China’s future.